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13 March 2007

How long should IT systems last?

By Andrew Clifford

How long should IT systems last? There is no wrong answer. Whatever answer you give is self-fulfilling.

If you think your systems should only last a couple of years, and you manage with that in mind, then by and large you will be right. The same applies for five years, or ten, or twenty. If you think your systems should last forever, they probably will.

So why don't we keep our systems for longer?

The answer is in the opening question. We have an expectation that systems will not last, and our expectation is self-fulfilling. If we can change our expectations, and manage accordingly, there is no limit to how long we can keep systems for.

Our expectations run very deep. Software maintenance is often dismissed as a phase of the software development life cycle, as if system use and ongoing management is just an unwanted by-product of the real work of systems development. This is deeply damaging. Do you consider your home in a phase between construction and demolition? Of course you don't.

We need to turn our priorities around. We pride ourselves in project management and systems development. But if we want long-lived systems, we need to emphasise the ongoing management and maintenance of IT.

Systems life span has a big impact on IT costs. If you run systems for longer, you can reduce the annualised cost of replacement. If you keep systems in good condition, you can reduce the costs associated with gradual decline. Business cost savings are even larger. Developing and implementing new systems is hugely disruptive. Extending the period between new systems from, say, seven years to ten, can be hugely beneficial.

There are counter arguments. Nobody wants to work with old systems. But I am not talking about squeezing a few more years out of ageing legacy systems, I want to keep systems forever young and fresh. Outsourcing old systems just hides the problem. It might contain costs for a few years, but at the end of the contract you still have an old system that needs to be replaced.

It is possible to manage your IT so that systems last forever, or at least to extend their life to maximise the return on your investment. You do not have to spend a lot; you just need a bit of discipline. Over the next few weeks, I will show how.

I will cover the basics of system identity and ownership. These are often overlooked, but without them you can not even begin to manage the life span of your systems.

I will look at the central concept of decoupling, keeping systems separate from each other so that changes in one do not disrupt other systems and shorten their life span. I will look at how technology choices and design have a big impact on system life expectancy.

And I will cover the management disciplines of managing change, of measurement, and the action you need to take to keep systems young and to rejuvenate ageing systems.

How long will your IT systems last? It's up to you.

Next: System life span: system definition

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