Should You Replace Old Custom Software with New Custom Software?

In the last 50 years, a lot of software has become vital to the operation of our businesses and organizations, even as technology has continued to evolve. Hardware and coding platforms and languages have fallen in and out of style, continuously replaced by newer, faster, easier, better ways of doing things. However, new custom software done right is a big investment. Keeping your business’ vital software always updated to match the rate of technological change can be a bit like working on an aircraft while it’s flying in the air. It’s an expensive, complicated endeavor full of risk.

It’s not always clear when it’s time to retire the software that powers your business and start fresh. Here are a few questions to ask as you weigh the decision.

1. Does the existing software still function and meet my organization’s needs?

If your software still functions well enough, think long and hard about embarking on a replacement or modernization project. You could pay a steep cost without realizing any real gains. Some important considerations that fall under this umbrella are:

Does it still perform quickly enough for my business’ operations, or is it slowing things down and creating unhappy customers?

In some cases, a degree of performance degradation is tolerable. For example, if the software takes a long time to look up a sales record, maybe that’s okay. But if it takes a long time to perform a task in a high-stakes situation like a surgical procedure, that’s probably not sustainable. The unique conditions of your business and the tasks your staff performs will dictate the level of performance required.

Does it enable or impede my staff from getting their work done?

To what degree? If your staff can do their jobs with your existing software, think carefully before replacing it. People don’t always like it when you change how they do their jobs. On the other hand, it may be time to act if you’re losing people or suffering other business consequences because of bad software. Enhancements in user interfaces and user experience conventions can save staff time. That can sometimes add up to cost savings or employee retention.

Does it still have the features and workflows I need to do business?

The way we use our software and the things we require from it are constantly shifting as the world evolves and as technology evolves to do new things. Sometimes these shifts are so big or compound so much over time that the software doesn’t make sense anymore. If that’s the case, are you able to augment and update the existing software to meet your new needs? Or perhaps you could run a new piece of software in parallel to cover the gaps? Only replace software as a last resort.

2. Is the existing software still supported?

This is a closely related but separate question from the one of functionality. Most software is built on an underlying technology platform or framework. Over time, the owners of those platforms and frameworks deprecate them when it doesn’t make sense for them to continue maintaining them. One of the most important considerations here is security. Is the owner of the technology platform still releasing security updates? If not, your business may be a huge risk as hackers discover exploits for the underlying technology. Other considerations here are:

Is my organization able to hire and/or train staff to fix and change the software as necessary?

If your software is built on an old or obscure framework, it can be difficult to attract and retain talent to work on it. When this becomes problematic enough for your organization, it’s time to do a replacement project. Make sure to choose a modern, widely-supported framework that lots of developers like to use.

Can the software be deployed to or installed on modern hardware?

Does it require a lot of hacks and workarounds to get running? Organizations can limp along on old hardware for a time, but, eventually, the hardware will break down. If hardware is an issue that’s even a little painful, that’s a sign to pay attention. Start planning your replacement project, because these issues tend to get more painful over time. You don’t want your business to be stuck when this happens and you can’t fix it or obtain a replacement.

Is the cost to maintain the software still sustainable?

Sometimes the costs of specialized engineering talent, hardware or computing power, or technology licensing can get so out of hand on old software that replacement just makes sense.

Is there another solution that will meet your needs?

If you’re considering a software replacement project, chances are your software was written at least a decade ago and possibly even two or three! Over the years, SaaS (software-as-a-service) tools have proliferated for a variety of specialized organizations and business functions. Software to fit your needs probably didn’t exist in the marketplace when you built your software, but it could very well be out there now!

Before you build your own software again, conduct an earnest search for off-the-shelf solutions that you can buy or license. The cost savings and the headaches that you’ll avoid might be well worth the tradeoff of having less control.

New custom software: Is it the answer?

Replacing software is always an expensive, disruptive proposition for any organization. In the end, investing in new custom software may be well worth the effort, removing problems and unlocking new opportunities. By carefully weighing the decision and considering off-the-shelf alternatives, you’ll be able to move forward with confidence.