What is really involved in converting to a new system?

by Frank 27. May 2012 06:00

Your customer’s old system is now way past its use by date and they have purchased a new application system to replace it. Now all you have to do is convert all the data from the old system to the new system, how hard can that be?

The answer is it that can be very, very hard to get right and it can take months or years if the IT staff or the contractors don’t know what they are doing. In fact, the worst case is that no one can actually figure out how to do the data conversion so you end up two years later still running the old, unsupported and now about to fail system. The really bad news is that this isn’t just the worst case scenario, it is the most common scenario and I have seen it happen time and time again.

People who are good at conversions are good because they have done it successfully many times before. So, don’t hire a contractor based on potential and a good sales spiel, hire a contractor based on record, on experience and on a good many previous references. The time to learn how to do a conversion isn’t on your project.

I will give you guidelines on how to handle a data conversion but as every conversion is different, you are going to have to adapt my guidelines to your project and you should always expect the unexpected. The good news is that if you have a calm, logical and experienced head then any problem is solvable. We have handled hundreds of conversions from every type of system imaginable to our RecFind product and we have never failed even though we have run into every kind of speed bump imaginable. As they say, “expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised.”

1.    Begin by reviewing the application to be converted by looking at the ‘screens’ with someone who uses the system and understands it. Ask the user what fields/data they want to convert. Take screenshots for your documentation. Remember that a field on the screen may or may not be a field in the database; the value may be calculated or generated automatically. Also remember that even though a screen may be called say “File Folder” that all the fields you can see may not in fact be part of the file folder table, they may be ‘linked’ fields in other tables in the database.

2.    You need to document and understand the data model, that is, all the tables and fields and relationships you will need to convert. See if someone has a representation of the data model but, never assume it is up to date. In fact, always assume it is not up to date. You need to work with an IT specialist (e.g., the database administrator) and utilize standard database tools like SQL Server Management Studio to validate the data model of the old system.

3.    Once you think you understand the data model and data to be converted you need to document your thoughts in a conversion report and ask the customer to review and approve it. You won’t get it right first time and expect this to be an iterative process. Remember that the customer will be in ‘discovery’ mode also.

4.    Once you have acceptance of the data to be converted you need to document the data mapping. That is, show where the data will go in the new application. It would be extremely rare that you would be able to duplicate the data model from the old application; it will usually be a case of adapting the data from the old system to the different data model of the new application. Produce a data mapping report and submit it to the customer for sign-off. Again, don’t expect to get this right the first time; it is also an iterative process because both you and the customer are in discovery mode.

5.    Expect that about 20% or more of the data in the old system will be ‘dirty’; that is, bad or duplicate and redundant data. You need to make a decision about the best time to clean up and de-dupe the data. Sometimes it is in the old application before you convert but often it is in the new application after you have converted because the new application has more and better functionality for this purpose.   Whichever method you choose, you must clean up the data before going live in production.

6.    Expect to run multiple trial conversions. The customer may have approved a specification but reading it and seeing the data exposed in the new application are two very different experiences. A picture is worth a thousand words and no one is smart enough to know exactly how they want their data converted until they actually see what it looks like and works like in the new application. Be smart and bring in more users to view and comment on the new application; more heads are better than one and new users will always find ways to improve the conversion. Don’t be afraid of user opinion, actively encourage and solicit it.

7.    Once the data mapping is approved you need to schedule end-user training (as close as possible to the cutover to the new system) and the final conversion prior to cutover.

Of course for the above process to work you also need the tools required to extract data from the old system and import it into the new system. If you don’t have standard tools you will have to write a one-off conversion program. The time to write this is after the data mapping is approved and before the first trial conversion. To make our life easy we designed and build a standard tool we call Xchange and it can connect to any data source and then map and write data to our RecFind 6 system. However, this is not an easy program to design and write and you are unlikely to be able to afford to do this unless you are in the conversion business like we are. You are therefore most likely going to have to design and write a one-off conversion program.

One alternative tool you should not ignore is Microsoft’s Excel. If the old system can export data in CSV format and the new system can import data in CSV format then Excel is the ideal tool for cleaning up, re-sequencing and preparing the data for import.

And finally, please do not forget to sanity check your conversion. You need to document exactly how many records of each type you exported so you can ensure that exactly the same number of records exist in the new system. I have seen far too many examples of a badly managed conversion resulting in thousands or even millions of records going ‘missing’ during the conversion process. You must have a detailed record count going out and a detailed record count going in. The last thing you want is a phone call from the customer a month or two later saying, “it looks like we are missing some records.”

Don’t expect the conversion to be easy and do expect it to be an iterative process. Always involve end-users and always sanity check the results.  Take extra care and you will be successful.

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