If you’re a bit of a space geek like me, then maybe you’re one of the 243 thousand plus followers of #NASANewHorizons; diligently monitoring deep space twitter sphere for the latest news and pictures from dwarf planet Pluto.
The success of the New Horizons project is incredible – especially when you consider it’s all been delivered by legacy technology. Technology that lifted off back in 2006 – when Pluto was a real planet and before we had the iPhone, mobile apps, social media, Big Data, the Internet of Things, oh and DevOps.
So why did this nine year old piano-sized hunk of tech deliver so impressively, and what lessons are there for those of us in IT managing our own legacy systems and applications? Actually there’s a lot we can learn from the outer reaches of our solar system.
Even in Deep Space constraints can be managed
The New Horizons space probe is an extreme example of a constrained physical system. Three billion miles from home, command sequences take 4.5 hours to reach the probe and the consequences of screwing as it barrels along at a lazy 30K mph are, well, pretty severe. Of course NASA scientists have a fallback – they use a simulator with engineering and telemetry models to test the commands that perform all the vital spacecraft activities.
In business computing we don’t have the luxury of having spare hardware of tap – especially for large legacy systems. Too often access to systems and data needed for development testing is constrained due to schedules, contention, security restrictions or service provider usage fees. To address this many organizations attempt costly provisioning of lab infrastructure, but these often don’t fully reflect production condition.
As with New Horizons, constraints within IT can be eliminated with technologies that model and simulate the behavior of dependent systems. This not only lowers infrastructure costs, but also helps teams move testing activities earlier in the lifecycle, where in parallel with development help detect software defects well before they impact production systems.
Change and release co-ordination is critical
Just days out from its rendezvous with Pluto, New Horizons suffered a minor glitch and lost contact with the earth. For a $700 million probe at the edge of the solar system, that caused a few jitters. Then after a day of analysis (and maybe some head scratching), mission control tracked the problem to a timing flaw in the spacecraft command sequence. Basically, the main computer went into safe mode after being asked to do two intensive tasks at once.
In enterprise tech our own legacy applications play an essential role in supporting key business processes. As such, and like New Horizons, changes must be carefully coordinated. What’s different, however, is the scale of the challenge. Multi-tier release deployments by nature are inherently complex with many dependencies. Automation therefore is critical, as are reusable and repeatable deployment processes to streamline application releases involving legacy systems.
Data can be exposed and utilized in different ways
It’s interesting to see how NASA have exploited social media for the New Horizons mission. Thanks to blogging, podcasts and Facebook all the news and fantastic images are now easily accessible. From the web-site too, the twitter API has been exploited to provide a constant channel of updates and facts about the legacy technology – did you know for example that the original PlayStation CPU (MIPS R3000) is used in the probe? – I guess if it worked solidly for a 100 million game units it can fire some thrusters 3.5 million miles out in space.
Businesses operating in an economy governed by software applications can take a lesson from the New Horizons mission. Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are now central to the exchange of value between companies, so it makes complete sense to use them against legacy systems and line of business applications. By securely unlocking the application data (and business processes) through API’s and by seamlessly managing message mediation and translation, organizations can have these older systems quickly participate in more modern processing and customer-centric computing.
Every system is a legacy system
Just as we rush to embrace every shiny new tech object, we can be equally hasty berating the value of existing systems and applications. To this end, legacy becomes a term of derision; associated with everything bad about enterprise computing. The more pragmatic among us know this isn’t so. After all these systems support a plethora of back-end business processes and continue to be the transactional work-horses upon which many businesses depends.
There’s a lot we can learn from the New Horizons mission. Even now scientists are saying that the spacecraft has decade’s worth of exploration left in it. So with some quick course adjustments it’s off to explore the next icy world.
Not bad for old space tech – perhaps in business computing we should be thinking the same way – extracting value before prematurely consigning our own legacies to application scrap-heap.