What is Application Modernization?

Application Modernization
Cloud Native App Dev

Learn what modernizing applications on the cloud entails and the various approaches you can leverage to meet your application modernization goals.

Application modernization is a big topic. Cloud application modernization is even bigger. Companies have multiple useful approaches and strategies available when it comes to modernization. But there are pitfalls and gotchas that can slow them down, increase cost, or even torpedo the entire effort.

This article reviews the most common types of application modernization. It will also show how to apply the right approach and implementation for your needs.

What is cloud application modernization?

Cloud application modernization involves updating older, legacy software (often developed for on-premises hosting) to utilize cloud-native technology, architectures, and best practices. 

A helpful analogy is performing extensive upgrades and repairs to an older car. An older car may still perform its essential functions. You want to continue using the car. However, maintenance and repair have become difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. 

Adding better tires, upgrading the suspension, and replacing broken parts with newer, modern parts will help the car function better and last longer. It’ll also become easier to maintain. 

Modernizing your application follows this same pattern. Fixing, improving, and upgrading older components will lead to easier maintenance, lower cost, and better user experience. 

This proves doubly true for applications you have migrated or are migrating to the cloud. Typically, the architecture of these applications uses techniques that you can implement with better scalability and lower cost if you re-design them to take advantage of cloud-native architectures. For example, you may migrate from your own home-grown server farm solution to Elastic Load Balancing, or move utility scripts running as potential single points of failure as a cron job on some box into an AWS Lambda function. 

You may revisit other legacy elements in your application stack along the way. Some examples include: 

LAMP stacks (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) – These stacks may have some life left. However, when moving them to the cloud, it’s common to restructure the architecture, improve the data layer (e.g., migrate to a managed database solution, such as Amazon RDS or DynamoDB), or rewrite the code using a modern framework and language.

Monolithic applications – Your imagination may go directly to old banking systems running COBOL on a mainframe. But monoliths come in all shapes and sizes. Even newer applications built on anything from .NET to Java can have a monolith architecture and be a good target for modernization. A shift to the cloud is a good time to look at moving to a more modular service-oriented architecture.

User expectations and business demands – Applications that can’t keep up with user demands for new functionality and business requirements must be modernized. Customer-centric innovation is no longer an optional luxury. Moving from manual deployments to CI/CD automation, monoliths to microservices, black-box data tiers to open APIs, etc. are all ways modernization can enable an application to be more nimble, empower customer-centric innovation, and meet ever-changing requirements and expectations.

Why cloud application modernization is essential 

Legacy applications have unique and challenging support requirements. Although we often define legacy apps by age, we can also define them by their relationship to the business. 

One way to think of this is that businesses and technology have a symbiotic relationship. An application becomes legacy when that symbiosis turns parasitic. The legacy app shows its age when it: 

  • Demands specialized knowledge (the app won’t start until all twelve background services are running), 
  • Requires extra sensitivity to business needs (never reboot the servers on the second Wednesday because the overnight job runs long processing month-end reports)
  • Becomes difficult to update (our next maintenance window isn’t for 7 weeks) 

This parasitic relationship creates additional tech debt. Teams have to put in additional hours just to keep the application afloat. 

Tech debt has a tangible impact. A 2018 Deloitte survey found that the average enterprise spends 57 percent of its IT budget on supporting legacy operations and only 16 percent on innovation. Modernization is essential to counteract the inertia of tech debt and the extra labor it requires.

Continuing to run a legacy application may be a business requirement. But it comes with risks and long-term negative consequences. These take the form of: 

  • Losing vendor support
  • Paying excessive licensing costs
  • Struggling with new security standards and the risks that come with non-compliance 
  • Failing to deliver new features and functionality demanded by users
  • Struggling to hire talent
  • Over-provisioning hardware to scale vertically (because your architecture doesn’t scale otherwise)

Benefits of cloud application modernization

Cloud application modernization can feel like a challenge. But it pays to plan and prepare for the necessary changes. Some of the benefits of application modernization include:

Improved Performance. A streamlined, efficient application can greatly improve user experience by being more responsive to input, intuitive to use, and providing expected output more quickly. Scalability can help drive part of this improvement. 

An application that effortlessly and automatically scales to support heavy usage is, by definition, a better-performing application.

Reduced Cost. Running on a more efficient or smaller infrastructure footprint reduces operational costs and simplifies maintenance requirements. 

Just as with performance, scalability helps with costs as well. For example, cloud-based elastic autoscaling models allow businesses to scale their infrastructure to meet demand. The days of over-provisioning for one-time peak events can be left in the past. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, modernization can reduce costs by removing dependencies on third-party vendors with licensing costs that can feel downright punitive.

Team Productivity. Engineering teams can focus time and energy on higher-value work by improving or removing software that requires time-intensive deployments, high-maintenance support, or legacy expertise.

Meet the Needs of the Business. Adapt and respond to business priorities through increased responsiveness, quicker development, and reliable deployment of new features and functionality for users. An accelerated innovation cycle and time to market (e.g., when you spend less on maintenance you have more margin to spend on R&D) paired with automated, streamlined, modern deployment processes help development teams provide value tied directly to business needs and priorities. 

Future-Proofing. Benefit from aligning and integrating your application with modern, cloud-compatible technologies that enable improved security, agility, reliability, and best practices.

Categories of cloud application modernization

CI/CD pipeline development

Continuous integration (CI) is a process where code changes committed to a central repository kick off an automated process to build and test the application with the new code. This automation shortens the feedback loop on new changes. 

Through CI/CD, engineers can understand how their changes affect the application. This enables them to address issues and resolve bugs more quickly and efficiently. 

In addition to simplifying and automating, CI also expands what is possible at the people and systems levels. For example, a CI process can run several end-to-end integration tests in parallel that would not be feasible for individual developers to coordinate on their own. Adding CI processes will convert local, narrow, individualized testing practices into systemwide, standardized, orchestrated workflows.

Continuous delivery or continuous deployment (CD) comes after the CI process. It packages and launches your code into different environments. 

A full CI/CD pipeline is a major component of an agile development process. It empowers your team to deploy quickly, efficiently, and with less manual interaction. In addition to streamlining work for your development team, it enables greater flexibility and responsiveness to the business's and users' needs.

Building a CI/CD pipeline is a highly customizable component of cloud application modernization. It should be tightly aligned with application and engineering team norms and standards. This custom workflow will include several stages with differing levels of complexity. 

This piece is highly customizable and doesn’t usually require application code changes. As a result, it’s often one of the most impactful components of application modernization and comes with the lowest investment requirement.

Container adoption

Lift-and-shift rehosting is a good first step for some applications. But it’s not sufficient for a true modernization initiative. True cloud application modernization must leverage cloud-native technologies by replatforming. 

Containerization is often the first step to replatforming. Containerization takes everything your app needs to run – OS, libraries, dependencies – and packages them into a single runtime deployable on any infrastructure. Since your app has everything it needs already packaged in the container, it can run on various hosts and cloud platforms. This makes it very portable, versatile, scalable, and lightweight.

This approach allows you to deploy your existing application code to multiple environments. Your app is no longer highly dependent on specific hardware, OS, or other expensive or hard-to-maintain requirements. Instead, you can run it on inexpensive hosts, and move and scale it easily.

Application refactoring

Refactoring is rewriting or restructuring application code. The desired outcome is for the application to maintain the same features but to run more efficiently with better performance and reduced operational overhead. 

Refactoring creates opportunities for easier maintenance and application updates through modernized coding practices. Additionally, it enables leveraging new technologies or computational methods provided by cloud infrastructure and services.

You can also combine refactoring with writing new code to break a monolith into microservices. This can include rearchitecting the application where the existing monolith code needs to be restructured into logical components. You can then implement and deploy these components independently, which often requires additional coding for proper integration and functionality. 

This is a popular architectural choice. It allows for straightforward implementation and simplified application maintenance as part of a comprehensive modernization strategy.

Refactoring typically requires more time and resources than replatforming. However, it provides better returns by realizing additional operational efficiencies and cost optimizations. Preparing your application to leverage cloud functionality like on-demand computing, resource elasticity, and massive scaling opens the door to cost savings that will recoup the required investment. Legacy applications are usually very good candidates for refactoring and rearchitecting.

Cloud native services

Cloud-native applications are applications created in the cloud leveraging purpose-built, managed services. Cloud application modernization using cloud-native services provides several advantages over legacy applications: it’s managed, highly scalable, resilient, and flexible.

All cloud-native services are managed services. Using them reduces operational overhead, inefficiencies, and risk. Many of these services also take it a step further and automate common activities like monitoring, patching, and backup out of the box. 

One specific category of cloud-native services is serverless computing. This is a popular approach to cloud application modernization that offers many benefits. 

Serverless concepts include: 

  • Running code on demand, such as AWS Lambda, without paying for costly, unused infrastructure
  • Utilizing storage such as EFS and S3
  • Launching databases such as AWS Aurora and AWS Athena that can scale almost infinitely

Serverless computing enables a key concept called “scale to zero.” Legacy provisioning practices require expensive infrastructure regardless of application usage. By contrast, scale-to-zero means that your infrastructure needs (and costs!) are reduced to zero when your application is idle and scaled back up when needed. 

Serverless is an increasingly attractive option for application modernization. Its extreme scalability, resiliency, flexibility, and scale-to-zero capabilities can bring cost efficiency and ease of management.

The building blocks of cloud application modernization

Automation & orchestration

Any modernized application will leverage automation and orchestration. Automation focuses on completing specific tasks, such as running a series of unit tests, efficiently and reliably without human intervention. Orchestration coordinates and manages a set of these automations, such as a full CI/CD pipeline or container deployments, to create a cohesive, standardized, rules-based workflow.

One important outcome of application modernization is ease of application management. To achieve and optimize this goal, your application should include a fully automated build and deployment pipeline that deploys to multiple environments. This pipeline will include stages for automated testing, approvals, artifact versioning, and business logic as needed. 

In addition to being critical for modernization, a fully automated pipeline is also a key component in operational excellence and the ongoing management of modern applications.

When it comes to implementing automation and orchestration, several categories of tools cover source code management, build, test, artifact management, deployment, and overall orchestration. You may already have some of these tools in your environment, and many of these tools can perform multiple orchestration functions. 

Source code: GitHub, GitLab, BitBucket

Dependency Management: Maven, npm, NuGet, pip

Test: JMeter, Selenium, Cypress

Deployment: Octopus, Ansible, Chef

Orchestration and Build: GitHub actions, GitLab CI

If you are already in the AWS ecosystem, you have a suite of tools available and ready to use. Two logical places to start are: 

  • AWS CodeCommit, a Git-based, source code management tool; and 
  • AWS CodeBuild, a highly-scalable build and test server that easily integrates with other build and testing tools you may already be using. 

You can build further orchestration after setting up source control and automation. For storing build artifacts, AWS CodeArtifact is a cost-effective artifact storage solution. AWS CodeDeploy deploys your build artifacts to your fleet of resources. And AWS CodePipeline is the orchestration tool that links these services and automations together.

API and composability

In a composable architecture, developers leverage APIs for a flexible approach to application development and management. Teams can easily update APIs without breaking old integrations. And they can create new API versions with no downtime. 

Using composability your modernized application can become nimble, flexible, and responsive to changing needs. You can leave behind concerns about your legacy application being brittle, rigid, and risky to change.

As difficult as this task may sound, Amazon provides multiple tools to help. Amazon API Gateway is a simple, secure, and scalable way to front your APIs and comes with the ability to version your endpoints. Deploying these APIs using one of Amazon’s serverless offerings, such as AWS Lambda or AWS Fargate, delivers a very cost-efficient solution. It also makes old API versions easier to maintain. 

In this serverless model, you only pay for invocations of your old API. That makes for an inexpensive way to support legacy processes.

Cloud infrastructure deployments

As you leverage additional cloud-native services, improving and standardizing how you deploy becomes critical. A key method of standardization is implementing infrastructure as code (IaC)

Using IaC means you interact with your infrastructure and code in the same ways. In other words, you use source control, branching, and version management to deploy to different environments. 

Running code to create infrastructure on demand is a central tenet of cloud computing. As you embrace the cloud, it becomes increasingly important. 

Over time, tearing down and spinning up entire environments at will becomes, not only possible, but standard practice. For example, developers should be able to provision their own test environments and de-provision them after their work is complete.

The tools used to manage and deploy IaC in AWS come with many options. The two AWS native approaches are AWS CloudFormation and AWS Cloud Development Kit (CDK)

CloudFormation is the entry-level standard. The CDK is a more advanced option for seasoned cloud practitioners. Using either of these tools allows you to write your infrastructure as JSON or YAML code. That enables you to deploy infrastructure multiple times to multiple environments. 

One improvement of AWS CDK over CloudFormation is that using the CDK allows you to write and organize infrastructure in a modern coding language like Java, Typescript, C#, Go, or Python. This brings the infrastructure even closer to your development team. In turn, that empowers them to own how the application functions and when, where, and how the infrastructure is operated.

Caylent’s approach to cloud application modernization

As you can see, cloud application modernization is a big topic. The strategies and the pitfalls are wide-ranging. But the benefits are worth it. 

If you have big ideas for your application modernization, getting started with Caylent’s deep expertise in cloud-native development is the fastest way to bring those ideas to life. We’ve helped our clients modernize applications using these strategies and can help you achieve the application modernization goals and requirements you need for your business. 

As a Premier Tier AWS consulting partner and the AWS Innovation Partner of the Year, we are here to help you achieve great outcomes for your business. 

We are all-in on AWS. We have deep expertise and knowledge, and your application modernization will be delivered by AWS-certified architects and software engineers. 

We are trusted and proven. We consistently achieve 9.5+ CSAT scores with our clients and will bring this same excellence to your project.

We have broad industry specializations in SaaS, Healthcare, Life Sciences, Financial Services, Insurance, Education, and Transportation.

Next Steps

Check out how Caylent can accelerate your cloud native journey. We’d love to learn more about your business and application modernization goals.

Application Modernization
Cloud Native App Dev
Chris Kemp

Chris Kemp

Chris Kemp is a Delivery Manager in the Cloud Native Applications practice at Caylent. He enjoys partnering with clients to implement AWS solutions using modern technologies and architectures. His many years in the software industry include application development, technical product management, team leadership, and co-founding a startup. Chris originally hails from the desert southwest but now calls the Dallas, TX area home. He strongly believes New Mexico green chile is the best condiment in the world, but has come to enjoy Tex-Mex too.

View Chris's articles

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