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In the course of digitalization, customer requirements have changed significantly. Everything must be available and retrievable immediately. Whenever possible, things should be in realtime. Speed and adaptability to individual preferences are other essential trends. In order to keep pace with these developments and the needs of customers, companies must live through these changes and be at the cutting edge of technology.

This is easier for young companies whose offerings are based on modern technology and the latest software and hardware. For larger companies, on the other hand, especially those that have been in business for several decades and often work with various legacy systems as a result, this represents a major challenge. Oftentimes, their hardware and software setups are connected with immense investments that they have had to make in order to gain or maintain competitive advantages. However, since information technologies have relatively short innovation cycles, the cost grind downs on these assets are considerable. In other words, a technology acquired yesterday will be available tomorrow at a significant discount. Ongoing investment calculations of previously acquired technology assets therefore clearly tend to hinder the ongoing digital transformation. Simply increasing the budget because of it is for most executives associated with a lot of company policy and laborious persuasion. The question therefore arises: How can companies with legacy systems still take action and take decisive measures in the technological change?

What legacy systems are and why they still exist

Companies started to implement the first computers and mainframes (so-called mainframe computers) and build software on them as early as the 1970s and 1980s. On the commercialized hardware at that time, people were able to quickly achieve very large performance advances with iterations that better met the needs of institutional customers. Driven by the spirit of invention and the speed of momentum, much more complex and powerful systems could quickly be created. The largest supplier in the mainframe market has for decades been the American company IBM. The AS-400 system introduced by IBM in 1988 was widely used and characterized by its stability and reliability. Well, hang on. Even today, some large insurance companies and banks still have software that runs on these AS-400 machines. One of the reasons for this is that replacing these outdated systems is extremely time and cost intensive. An upgrade can take months, if not years, depending on the scope of the systems and the necessary change projects.

as-400
First edition of an AS-400 from IBM (source: Wikimedia

Difficulties with interfaces

A major problem of such legacy systems is that creating interfaces is extremely difficult. This is because software from that time has no standardized interfaces for capturing or reading data. As a consequence, the connection of a modern API is an extraordinary challenge.

Missing talent

Another problem of legacy systems is that they are based on old programming languages. This means that newly trained IT specialists often have no use for these systems. They simply lack an understanding of the languages and concepts used. And the learned modern programming languages such as Java, Python, Ruby on Rails, etc. are not really helpful to make derivations and be able to deal with the old frameworks.

In addition, legacy systems in most cases have no technical specifications and no documentation, which makes it difficult to create an alternative with identical functionalities. An additional key aspect is that employees are accustomed to the old systems, which means that a new system would also require training, which in turn has a negative impact on capacity and monetary resources.

RPA as a solution

The problems described underpin the challenge that many companies are struggling with and often lead the management to believe that a complete upgrade to modern systems is not the solution. But good news: With Robotic Process Automation (RPA), legacy systems can be upgraded with relatively little effort.

When using RPA, the system is not operated via interfaces, which as mentioned is one of the weak points of these systems, but via a virtual robot that can operate the user interface. Just like you do. The robot can therefore imitate the clicks and sequences that are otherwise made by employees.

Years of development have resulted in the user interfaces of AS-400 machines working cleanly. For example, if a human or a robot enters an amount without a unit, an error message is displayed. The process then runs under an exception, which in the end usually has to be viewed by a human. In this way, incorrect entries can be almost completely prevented. If you organize these transactions via a direct interface instead, such error messages are handled differently and errors occur more quickly. As you can see, implementing RPA is not only easier and cheaper than setting up an interface to legacy systems, but also brings additional benefits.

What advantages RPA has to offer

Since robots can imitate humans to execute almost all repetitive and rule-based processes, RPA is relatively easily scalable and can also be adapted to different requirements with practically no additional infrastructure.

RPA is also extremely constructive when it comes to safety. Compared to other approaches to avoid a complete replacement of legacy systems, such as outsourcing or offshoring, RPA offers a higher level of security. Cause with RPA, companies are still in full possession of sensitive company data and have control over all access authorizations.

It is obvious that RPA offers a number of advantages for improving legacy systems. But while implementation is fast and relatively inexpensive, successful adoption of this technology requires careful planning. In addition to identifying opportunities and deciding which processes to automate, choosing the right RPA vendor to guide you and your organization along the path of automation is critical to the hoped-for success of the automation initiative.

With RPA into the future

With our trusted partner and RPA specialist ESGroup, you have an ideal partner in the process of your RPA initiative and can build upon a team with many years of experience in software development. If you want to take the initiative and make your company fit for the next upcoming years, the best way to get in touch is to contact the team directly by email at zurich@esgroup.ch or call +41 42 321 99 82 for a non-binding exchange. Good luck!