HIT legacy systems: Outrunning the Zombie Apocalypse

Marian Cook

July 06, 2015

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A staggering, decaying hulk blocks your path. Hungrily, it roars, "Braaaiiins! Must have braaaaiins!"

This isn't "The Walking Dead," the popular zombie TV show. This is about something much scarier: the walking dead legacy health information technology (HIT) systems lurching about and sucking life out of our enterprises.

C'mon. Admit it. You have systems costing more than they are worth, and would look good in a chalk outline. Secretly, you would love to axe them in the head.

A zombie, our friends at Wikipedia say, is an "animated corpse resurrected by mystical means, such as witchcraft. The term is often figuratively applied to describe a hypnotized person bereft of consciousness and self-awareness, yet ambulant and able to respond to surrounding stimuli."

Zombies are an apt analogy for the resource hungry, high liability HIT legacy systems we so often find tripping us on our journey to a better future. Resurrecting these stumbling systems, often undocumented, unsupported and with unknown dependencies lurking around every corner, takes a bit of witchcraft. Expensive witchcraft. With a dwindling number of witches.

I certainly have been there. I recall with nightmarish clarity a major migration project from customized legacy systems to a standard enterprise platform. The business decision to delay the move meant accepting the zombie risk longer than was originally recommended. A long story there, but nonetheless, the zombies attacked with repeated and increasing vigor over time. We were trying to outrun a zombie apocalypse.

Any wannabe botnet operator can now create his or her own army of ZeusVM-infected computers,

It wasn't always so. These zombies were once lively, valuable and desirable. They played a key role in satisfying the business requirements of yore. They were integral to important business processes and were beloved by many. And the time came when they could not adapt to current demands and, in fact, became a barrier to future goals.

Time to get out the axe.

Ah, were it that easy, though. Instead, it is a frightful journey fraught with peril. How can the risk and expense be estimated and managed, let alone reduced, when these systems are frequently a mystery beneath the covers?

Given the costs, risks and complexity of making a change, all industries are reluctant to use the axe. HIT systems are particularly vulnerable to the zombie virus since healthcare organizations frequently keep medical records beyond what is required (read: permanently). Another example: healthcare delivery organizations are loathe to dispose of clinical information and the systems that house it. And yet, if not strategically analyzed and decommissioned, these zombies leave behind a costly swath of hardware, software, data, IT staff and users.

How, then, does the responsible IT leader exterminate this impending herd of hungry ghouls? Application costs are one place to do so, and highlight a conundrum: technology changes rapidly and applications do not. Technology tends to get cheaper. Applications do not.

Application costs rise due to complexity and constant support, while business value may be declining or questionable. This is drain of IT resources that the business does not, in my opinion, understand, appreciate or reward.

Application portfolio management, like financial portfolio management, should be an ongoing measurement and proactive management of the financial benefits of each application. Ideally, it should be part of the human, er, application lifecycle. Let's be honest. It usually is not. Doing it ex post facto is the norm. Or should I say, in alignment with our zombie metaphor, post-mortem?

While it can be done in an in-depth and comprehensive way, you can conduct a lighter weight annual application fitness review. Recommended in Gartner Group's report, "Healthcare Delivery Organizations Need to Make Legacy Decommissioning a Higher Priority," target the top 10-20% applications by, for example, operational expense, and consider the following questions:

- Is the application meeting the mission or business needs and mandates now and for the remainder of the assessment period?
- Is the risk to the organization running the application as it currently stands acceptable?
- Is the current and anticipated remaining total cost of running the application appropriate to current conditions?

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At my current employer, we are assessing just such an initiative. After considering the effort, we may determine it is not worth it. But my experience tells me it will be. I smell zombies.

HIT or not, it is just one step of many to outrun the zombie apocalypse.

On the same journey? Please share your experiences. After all, great minds taste alike.

"We're in this together, corpse."
- Isaac Marion, Warm Bodies (2013)

And if not, well...

"Fine, but if and when the zombies team up with the mummies to take over the world, you can't live in my underground bunker."
- Emily Cale, Under Wraps (2010)

This article was previously published at Computer World: http://www.computerworld.com/article/2474824/healthcare-it/hit-legacy-systems---outrunning-the-zombie-apocalypse.html

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