Legacy Technology = Technology that Worked, and It’s Time We Showed Some Respect | Sherpas in Blue Shirts

Posted On May 18, 2016

The common theme in all my market conversations around digital disruption with enterprises, technology vendors, and system integrators is the word “legacy.” But, no one is clearly defining what a legacy technology is. Is it three years old, or three decades old? One that entails costly support, one with diminishing skills, one that is proprietary?

Technology can become legacy only when it has worked well, and still serves some purpose. Indeed, as true legacy technologies helped make businesses what they are today, they deserve some overdue respect. Of course, on the flip side, many technologies that should have been decommissioned lingered on not because they served well but because switching was costly and risky.

Legacy technologies continue to run the most mission critical workloads in enterprises. However, times are changing fast. Moore’s chasm is reversing, and enterprises are now chasing startups, or incubating internally, to lead technology-driven business transformation and disruption. With this, enterprises must address numerous critical questions. How should they go about selecting the legacy technology most suited for upgrade or replacement? How do they make a business case beyond cost savings? Do their CIOs and IT leaders have sufficient data points regarding this? What is the surety that they won’t regret their decision three or five years down the road?

One big challenge I see is that enterprises believe their legacy technologies are sacrosanct and should not be altered or experimented with. This has worked beautifully for technology vendors and systems integrators who have fed on these fears to sell their solutions. They promise to “integrate” legacy with newer technologies without disrupting ongoing operations. They are overzealous in committing that the investments in legacy will be protected.

While this sounds good in theory and has worked in the past, it has outlived its utility. For digital business to work, legacy technologies must be meaningfully altered and upgraded to incorporate the fundamental concepts of newer paradigms. These include an open architecture, service orientation, environment independence, dynamic resource allocation and consumption, and elasticity. Anyone promising to “protect” legacy without introducing the changes above is lying or creating a poor solution.

Though today’s technology is tomorrow’s legacy, the pace of legacy generation in the future will be exceptionally rapid. Enterprises will not be able to make their three-year, five-year, or ten-year plans, and will have to rely on extremely agile operations to ensure they can plug and play the most suitable technologies. Unfortunately, things are not getting any simpler. The myriad of technologies with their own protocols and lack of standards, multiple APIs with different performance characteristics, proprietary cloud technologies, and other similar disparities are again creating integration challenges.

What is the way forward? Enterprises cannot control the flow of technologies available in the industry. Their best bet is to invest in people who are going to use these technologies to create business outcomes. I believe the days of technology specialists are fast fading, and enterprises will require “multi specialists.” These are resources who understand technology beyond the monocular views of application developers or the operational view of the IT organization. They understand how and why different services should talk to each other, how to develop fluid, self-contained workloads, how to design systems that are open and allow technologies to be hot swapped, how to leverage external systems, and how to continuously monitor the impact of technology on the business.

However, new systems are becoming open yet more complex, vulnerable to attacks, costly to maintain, and difficult to architect. Enterprises are insufficiently investing in the people who drive the technology agenda. The silos of technology and business continue, while they ideally should have collapsed. And although the idea-to-cash cycle might have reduced, it has not been fundamentally altered.

Therefore, despite their best efforts and all the technologies available, enterprises may find themselves right back where they started – the dreaded legacy.

What do you think is the best way forward?