Avoid the legacy trap

An enduring challenge of ICT in business is the speed at which tech develops, and the possibility of finding oneself on the wrong side of (technology) history.
Peter Clarke
By Peter Clarke
Johannesburg, 09 Jul 2019

The classic conundrum all companies find themselves in, sooner or later, is the advent of a new piece of technology that promises to generate a competitive advantage of some kind.

Inevitably, this technology turns out to not quite fit in with the current ICT architecture; it ends up operating more or less in isolation or, at best, is imperfectly cobbled into the system.

This process ends up with what we politely call a heterogeneous ICT environment.

Alongside this fact of life is the need, occasionally, to upgrade existing technology because it is becoming outdated, or is no longer supported. This is currently happening in the Microsoft world as Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 come to end of life.

Again, CIOs can find themselves feeling trapped into making changes with wider ramifications than were first supposed.

Typically, the tendency is to see the problems as primarily related to technology and thus solvable by technology. In fact, the challenge should be seen holistically, looking beyond hardware and software to include business process as well. Technology-modernisation projects should always be undertaken in conjunction with the business, or this will risk creating another legacy trap further down the line.

The challenge should be seen holistically, looking beyond hardware and software to include business process as well.

More profoundly, companies need to take a strategic approach in order to avoid finding themselves boxed in by technology, or overly committed to one particular technology path. Of course, every organisation has its own set of unique variables and considerations, but the following common-sense principles will help in avoiding being caught in the legacy trap:

  • Work with a trusted technology advisor. Technology service providers are usually best placed to understand what is coming down the line, and also how to match technology with what the company is trying to achieve. Even companies with the luxury of a CIO will find this valuable because service providers have a broad view of both the ICT industry and the particular vertical in which the client operates.
  • Make sure you know what current assets can do; don’t be in too much of a hurry. In the software space, it’s frequently the case that existing packages have a range of tools and add-ons that aren’t fully appreciated. For example, Office 365 isn’t just e-mail; there are some 40 apps in the suite. Here’s where a trusted technology advisor can help you find apps that don’t need to be bought and that are already integrated into what is there. I often see companies wanting to buy something to which they already have access.
  • Mitigate the legacy risk you are exposed to. Some legacy applications and hardware simply can’t be modernised, and one needs to think laterally. For example, it might be possible to modernise the platform on which a legacy application runs, or it could be practical to virtualise some, or all, of the legacy and move it onto the cloud. In such cases, you can retain the legacy systems that are still fit for purpose without compromising an overall modernisation process. Such an approach will also make for easier integration with modern systems.
  • Start with the basics. When looking at unbundling legacy systems, begin with the basic infrastructure. Just as when one is building a house, it’s best to begin at the foundations and work upwards. Adopting a modular approach makes a lot of sense, and will allow for a methodical implementation of a strategy, and will also, by design, cater for change.
  • Adopt a strategic mindset. Technology has become integral to most businesses, so it is hugely counterproductive not to integrate it into all strategic discussions. In turn, this will set the scene for continual improvement in the ICT infrastructure and systems in line with where the company is going, rather than playing catch-up. The modular approach advocated in the previous point is critical here.

Don’t ignore quick wins. Modernisation projects are often seen as long-term projects, but there is much to be gained from short-term wins as well. For example, Microsoft’s change to a subscription model means the end of licensing compliance woes and also means end of life ceases to be a problem. It also enhances security because patching is done automatically, which sounds like a small thing, but let’s never forget that WannaCry exploited a security vulnerability for which a patch had been issued months earlier.

It is probably unrealistic to hope that one will be able to eliminate any chance that the company finds itself facing a legacy issue, but following these principles will certainly make it a rarity.