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As new and better technology and solutions emerge, a product or environment can become irrelevant overnight. Think about your own personal devices. If you looked through your apps right now, are there some that you forgot you have?

If you have a continuous improvement mindset, this is an exciting time — rapid advancements and the flexibility of microservices provide extremely efficient and custom IT environments. When a business need is recognized, leaders are able to find a highly specialized solution and get to market faster than ever before. Continuous adoption of new technologies without getting rid of old ones leads to application sprawl. And application sprawl is like quicksand: It will stop you from moving forward.

The most common reasons for abandoning an application include:

  • Societal changes: Social changes, such as a change in the business model or consumer choices can lead to leaving one application for a new one. Even political situations can render things obsolete — like a sales tax change or a new regulation that changes data policies and renders applications unsafe or non-compliant.
  • Rapid innovation: Simply put, better solutions with new capabilities are developed. For example, if a new CRM software is created with better-targeted functionality than an older version, businesses naturally will gravitate to newer, more efficient options — without ever fully retiring previous solutions.
  • Technological progress: Advances in technologies like AI, machine learning, RPA, and IoT are enabling businesses to do more with less, making prior applications unnecessary or redundant. This is different than just newer versions of older software, because these technologies bring in completely new advancements and capabilities not previously possible.

A cycle of continuous abandonment is usually an indicator of a forward-thinking organization, but it has to be balanced with strong management, organization, and retirement of old technologies or IT leaders will quickly feel as if they are drowning in applications. Every time you add a new solution, it’s important to intentionally remove any older ones you no longer need. A company that fails to do this will overburden IT, increase discord in the organization, reduce its ability to adapt to changing business needs, and open itself up to security threats.

The burden on IT. The sharp growth in applications means IT teams have more to manage. The increased workload demands team members focus on the most pressing issues first, leaving less time for planning and innovation. When the IT team starts to feel overwhelmed by their environment, they are naturally going to pull back on adding anything new, halting innovation.

Increased discord. The problem of an overburdened IT compounds when other departments start to feel like the IT team is not supporting their needs. Many have the ability to purchase and implement the solution they want without informing IT at all, which is increasingly common. Departments that operate in silos might have very similar needs but adopt different, overlapping solutions. As the issue grows, it can create confusion for general business employees, who might not always know what the most up-to-date or correct applications are to use. Instead they spend time across disparate applications, creating a roadblock for efficiency and productivity. This compounds as tenured employees leave and applications are forgotten, unknown to the IT team.

Impediment to progress. Note that technology sprawl is not limited to applications, but to features within applications as well. When applications and even features are not discarded, over time the technology spreads widely, creating a headache for IT as they must manage things like dependencies on obsolete technology. This makes them beholden to the technology, rather than forward progress; a failure to discard holds the business back from modernization like cloud migration.

Security risks. When applications are no longer in use, they are no longer a priority for updates or monitoring. This is even more true if an app was unknown to the IT department in the first place — even though it’s still connected to other business applications, business data, and internal IT systems. Hackers now have a prime way to sneak into your IT stack through back doors and forgotten applications that haven’t been maintained with the proper and most up-to-date security measures.

To stay innovative and protect against data breaches or leaks, you need to balance the adoption of new technologies with the retirement of old ones. Yet, the process of retiring requires effort and carries a risk of downtime, data loss, or impacting other applications. Many are hesitant to slow down their time to market with this kind of clean-up work, so it is put off to another day.

Similarly, some IT shops assume the upfront cost and time commitment of retirement is too high in contrast to the cost of just letting an old app run in the background. But “out of sight, out of mind” will catch up with you, resulting in a negative impact much sooner than you might realize.

Businesses need to start looking at how to track applications — for example, through a company app directory — and add continuous retirement to the application lifecycle. As IT environments become increasingly more complex with the addition of microservices and citizen development through low code and no code, the organization’s commitment to retiring obsolete technology is key to future growth and innovation. Bringing less code, fewer features, or fewer apps to internal customers is not traditionally a celebrated part of IT culture, but it should be, and continuous retirement can be just that vehicle.

As the pace of innovation continues to rapidly increase, we’re seeing new capabilities, applications and solutions that hold incredible potential for the future of businesses. It’s understandable — and encouraged — that businesses keep up with this pace. But it’s critical to do so without letting application sprawl hold the company back. It’s natural to move on to the next new technology, especially when it promises to drive new revenues or increase performance. Where continuous improvement is an admirable business model focused on driving this innovation, continuous retirement is a necessary counterweight. The risks to business productivity, innovation, and security are far too great to ignore.

Aater Suleman is Vice President of Cloud Transformation at NTT DATA Services. He is also co-founder and CEO of Flux7, an NTT DATA Company. He is a frequent speaker at events including AWS re:Invent, Dockercon, TechWell, and O’Reilly and regularly conducts corporate workshops on digital transformation. He is a Technology Council Contributor for Forbes and a professor at the University of Austin.

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