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Don’t be held back by your legacy data centre

Posted by on September 16, 2015

We live in the age of the nimble and agile challenger. Or to put it another way, companies using the latest digital technology to disrupt markets, deliver better services and steal market share from larger and more established rivals.

Equally, though, we live in the era of hugely successful business giants who dominate their chosen markets at home and abroad and many of them have a dark secret. Hidden away behind closed doors, in locked rooms they run their operations using “legacy” IT systems, many of which date back thirty years or more to the days when mainframe computers ruled the roost.

For the most part, these venerable systems run anonymously in the background, processing payroll for government departments, running record systems for health providers, managing procurement for manufacturers and handling billions of pounds worth of transactions for City institutions. Then one day something goes wrong. A bank fails to process direct debits, or benefit payments are delayed. At that point the legacy IT systems (still used by a surprising number of major organizations) step to the front of the stage as critics round on hardware and software combinations that are no longer fit for purpose.

Legacy systems are firmly embedded in the world’s business eco-system. For instance, here in the UK, companies such as John Lewis and Tesco run their operations using old mainframes. Perhaps more surprisingly, according to a recent report in Information Age, mainframes process about 30 billion transactions for the world’s banks, each and every day.


The bigger picture – escaping the legacy mindset

But it’s not just about mainframes. Arguably you can define legacy IT as any aging system that is being pushed beyond its originally intended design limits in order to cope with the transactional demands of the modern world. Perhaps it is also difficult and expensive to maintain due to a shortage of suitably experienced engineers and programmers. Certainly it will hold the organization back.

And that last point is key. A legacy system might be based around a 30 year old mainframe, it could be an aging ERP solution, or it could be a data centre that is no longer delivering what the organization needs. The common factor is that its limitations are feeding through to impaired performance.


Caught in the headlights

So why do we still see so many legacy systems fulfilling business critical roles?

Well the short answer is that change is difficult. There are certainly risks associated with maintaining legacy systems. In recent times we’ve seen flight disruption thanks to problems with an aging air traffic control system and a large financial institution’s reputation damaged by a computer failure that locked down customer accounts. But there are also risks in upgrading. Transferring data from one system to another is a huge task for a major company. There is a fear that data will be lost and that services will be disrupted. Best to stick to the stable and reliable devil you know then.

Is there really a choice?

Take the banking sector.  Analysts are already warning that incumbent banks will lose out to challengers with better systems. To remain competitive, major institutions must replace their legacy systems. To a greater or lesser extent the same is true in all sectors. What’s required is a strategy and a willingness to take some short-term pain.


An opportunity

And a strategic rethink creates opportunities not just to improve legacy systems but to also review and upgrade every aspect of IT.

Data centres provide a case in point. It was common, ten years ago, to provision a vast numbers of racks all supplying low level power (around 1kW) in order to run old machines that did not need much more than a steady supply of electricity.  Fast forward to 2015. To replace a high quantity of legacy equipment an IT manager can now purchase a single piece of hardware, usually in the form of a blade server, to do a better job than all the other equipment combined. The only snag is, those low powered racks will no longer do and all of a sudden, the IT manager now needs maybe 20x times more power and cooling and 10x less space than 10 years prior.

Another issue that can be slightly daunting is the need to forecast for years of business activity to buy the right equipment and take the right amount of space and power from day one.  The lack of flexible space, power and contract terms afforded by many data centre providers can often deter major businesses from taking steps forward with their IT.  But with the right partner, it shouldn’t be a worry.

For a major company, a change from one solution to another is not something to be undertaken lightly but within the context of a much broader strategy that will see significant increases in efficiency, there is a real opportunity to work together to plan for a change to a data centre that can provide improvements in terms of costs, reliability, resilience, security and flexibility.

In a competitive marketplace, all aspects of IT should be fit for purpose. Making the necessary changes requires an escape from the legacy mindset.


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