Are Monolithic Systems Still Fit for the Future of IT Architecture?

The long road to digital transformation is often full of new technology implementation and processes – each one acting as a building block for the latest capabilities, user experiences, business models, and products and services.

But what about a company’s legacy foundation of monolithic applications? Is it ready to take on these new opportunities?

Very rarely do successful businesses sit idle. They are living, breathing entities that evolve relentlessly to find new ways to stay competitive, capture the hearts and minds of loyal customers, and grow and expand without disruption.

Each new change is just as critical as the other and fits seamlessly with existing and future technology implementations to deliver the next significant transformation. No matter how ambitious the expectation or substantial the investment, most long-term programs cannot keep up with the changing business.

All too often, businesses forget to consider the digital asset that has supported them all along: monolithic systems.

Implementation: Agile Speedboat or Slow-Moving Tanker

The relationship between companies and their digital technology usually starts with a single implementation project. At first, the IT architecture is streamlined, highly-efficient, and flexible enough to react to changes in business requirements and strategies.

This is the moment when businesses operate like small, yet powerful speedboats – weaving around risks, seizing opportunities, and pivoting as soon as the current of market dynamics shift. However, as business needs change, those agile speedboats may instead resemble slow-moving tankers that are loaded down with new applications, devices, data sources, and processes.

The bigger these monolithic systems grow, the more challenging refactoring existing applications becomes when transforming the IT landscape. Digital transition programs become more extensive in scope, demanding more time, money, and effort to support them. Meanwhile, as required processing speed exceeds existing capabilities, which degrades system performance and stability, business operations become less responsive, and development cycles slow down.

Getting around such a high-risk, complex dilemma calls for a well-defined digital strategy that is driven by committed leadership across all levels of the organization. So, instead of viewing a digital initiative from the perspective of a single organization, business leaders can see how their individual area’s technical and organizational transformation impacts the rest of the company.

Setting the Right Foundation for an Agile Transition

All within the same business, organizations use various ways to keep up with the pace of digital transformation. Some choose to strengthen end-to-end processes, while others aim to seamlessly integrate a diverse IT landscape. A growing number of organizations are extending the best capabilities of their on-premise applications with the simplicity and speed of a cloud platform.

Fast innovation cycles and standardized core functionality do not fit together in one monolithic system. Although, with a bimodal IT architecture, core applications can stay on-premise while new digital applications are built and run in a flexible cloud environment.

With a full view of all landscape strategies and architectures, all lines of business can work together to magnify the full potential of digital investments by:

  • Analyzing existing and future business strategies, requirements, and processes
  • Establishing a digital core as a stable and standardized foundation
  • Using flexible cloud solutions to support fast-changing innovation requirements

By embracing this approach with a modular cloud architecture, businesses can break down an enterprise transformation program into smaller, flexible, and agile projects that target specific functions of their monolithic system.

For example, business requirements can be clustered to create new business models and provide the degree of standardization and flexibility required to enable them. New digital capabilities or skills can be assigned to multiple modular solution components to develop extensions dynamically, and almost independently, of core systems. Additionally, decoupled release cycles can be communicated through standard application program interfaces.

Release the Monolith for a Fast-Evolving Future

Monolithic systems are not easy to transition or replace. However, businesses should remember that digital transformation is a long-term state of mind — not a destination. Transformation is not accomplished with a big, one-shot move or a mass rip-and-replace implementation. Instead, it is an incremental, consistent movement focused on specific outcomes, user experiences, and agile innovation.

So, when thinking about how current monolithic systems may not fit the needs of tomorrow’s IT architecture, do not be discouraged. The right discipline, commitment, and investment can shape a company’s legacy technology into a digital platform that can keep up with the pace of digitalization and support the opportunities of a quickly-evolving future.

Next week in the “Enterprise Architecture and Landscape Strategy” series, consider why the right ERP suite and the right approach provides the fastest path toward realizing the full potential of digital investments.

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Olaf Schlüter is an enterprise architect in SAP Consulting  IT Architecture Advisory at SAP.