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The Golden Years of Intranet Life: Retrofit or Rebuild?

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (17-Oct-2003)

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Anyone who's a baseball fan is familiar with the story of the infamous Olympic Stadium—the "Big O," or "Big Oh No" to some—in Montreal. As a native Montrealer, I can tell you that the stories you've heard about the leaking and collapsing roof, the falling concrete columns, and the tumbleweeds rolling through the bleachers are all true. While it seems to be a structure waiting to be put out of commission, it still stands.

The Montreal Expos baseball team—Olympic Stadium's main patrons—played one-third of their 2003 "home" games away from the Stadium and are unable to draw revenue from their dwindling fan base. Other events the stadium was known to host in the past, such as rock concerts, boat and auto shows, and motocross events, have long since found other venues.

Many believe that the stadium has outlived its usefulness and passionately argue that the money spent on the repairs over the many years will never be recovered. Yet millions of dollars are still being poured into repairing a structure that should have been put out to pasture a long time ago. So why hasn't it?

There's a lesson to be learned here.


Intranet System Lifecycle

Intranets, and all systems for that matter, have a lifecycle. They are conceived, developed, and implemented for a period of time in which they fulfill a business requirement. However, what you expect to get out of your intranet will change over the years because businesses are in a constant state of flux. There is no permanence; and as such, the functionality an intranet offered during its initial implementation will also need to change. But when too large a gap separates the system from the process, your intranet may be reaching the end of its usefulness.

A certain amount of time, effort, and financial commitment is placed on the development and maintenance of a corporate system. When this system comes to the end of its lifecycle—whether it be in one year or five years—it's understandable for there to be some attachment to it, especially if you were heavily involved in the project.

Regardless of the emotional factor associated with reaching the Golden Years of system lifecycle, there's a stranger phenomenon that befalls intranet owners. There are those who will do anything to keep a system alive, lifecycle be damned. And therein lies the paradox: more money is spent for fear of wasting money.

Additional resources are poured into a system to keep it afloat in order to avoid what may be perceived by some as a waste of money if it were scrapped; a sort of "We've come this far and can't turn back now" mentality. What they fail to understand is that if a system has already served its purpose, it's not a waste of money. And to allow it to gracefully come to the end of its lifecycle is a far more cost effective option than dumping more money into an obsolete system simply for the sake of keeping it around.

So when your intranet reaches this stage and you've come to the conclusion that an intranet will still play a vital roll in the future of your company but needs substantial changes from its current incarnation, you have two choices:

(It should be noted that a production system can also be scrapped entirely, but this rarely happens, unless it's dictated by a drastic change in business practice, without replacing it with something else.)


Retrofitting Versus Rebuilding

When you want to add an extra guest room or turn your basement into a home theater, you wouldn't actually tear down your whole house and build it up all over again, would you? Unless you're a masochist with a lot of time on our hands, it would be much simpler to renovate and build upon what's already there.

But if you're trying to turn an old, sun-scorched hayloft barely able to stand under its own weight into a cottage with a large patio, you're going to have a tough time trying to secure the rickety barn and relocating Bessy the cow. It would be a lot safer to demolish the old structure and build up your cottage from scratch.

Whether retrofitting or rebuilding, the decision to overhaul your intranet is a gentle balancing act that requires you to determine the amount of effort required in relation to the scope of your new requirements. Before you decide, review your current system and compare what you already have with your new specs:


Retrofitting

Retrofitting, or re-engineering, is the process of modifying or upgrading an intranet to meet a new set of requirements.

The advantage here comes from building upon an existing infrastructure. Unlike developing an entirely new system from square one, a retrofitted intranet is based on a solid foundation that has been tested and proven reliable. And since users are already familiar with it, they will require minimal re-training.

However, it's important to make sure that, by deciding to retrofit, the core intranet structure is still relevant and applicable to the new vision. I say this as a warning because retrofitting may sometimes be a little misleading. It's easy to be fooled into thinking that building upon an existing structure will be both faster and easier than building afresh, but that existing structure may end up being a hindrance. Your current intranet may actually have adverse affects to the outcome of your new system or narrow the range of its functionality.

When you're forced to upgrade within the framework of an old intranet, it may limit you in how much you're able to accomplish (i.e., trying to put the proverbial square peg into the round hole). And if the old intranet deviates too much from the specs of the new system, you're going to be forced to do two things instead of one: 1) fix the current intranet, and then 2) implement the new specs.

Golden Rule: Never pile additional features onto an obsolete system.


Rebuilding

There will be times when your pre-existing intranet is unable to accommodate the new features and functionality you hope to implement. The new specs are either too different from your current system or the technology is incompatible.

In these cases, don't force yourself to retrofit a system that can't support your future needs simply to avoid having to discard the old one. Realizing that the current and future intranets are completely different is your first step in the rebuilding process.

The important formula here is to calculate whether the timeframe to rebuild an intranet is substantially smaller than that of overhauling an existing one to comply with your new requirements.

Although rebuilding an intranet from scratch gives you a clean slate to work with and the least amount of functional restriction, it's also the toughest option for intranet owners to accept. People have an inherent tendency to hold on to things, trying to convince everyone that "it's still good." But no amount of coaxing will resurrect a dead system.

Golden Rule: When an intranet becomes obsolete and very little of the old system is re-usable, accept that it's done its job and concentrate on building the new system.


The Future is Now

The decision to retrofit or rebuild is highly dependent on the state of your old intranet. If you retrofit, you need to ensure that there's a stable foundation in which to build upon. If you rebuild, you need to ensure that you're not throwing away a reusable infrastructure.

Here's a quick summary:

  Do Don't
Retrofit If the core of the old intranet is still applicable to current business processes and you only need to add new functionality. If the existing intranet has an obsolete structural core and limits you in what you're able to do.
Rebuild If the scope and goals of your new intranet vision differ too greatly from that of the current system. If the existing intranet contains a large chunk of reusable functionality, code, and data.

The goal of retrofitting or rebuilding an intranet is to start a new system lifecycle, not applying a band aid to keep a sinking ship afloat. So the next time you consider throwing more money at an obsolete system, ask yourself why more money is poured into the Big O when the Montreal Expos are playing a bulk of their "home" games in Puerto Rico.


Copyright © 2003 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.