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Much of the excitement around the cloud seems to focus on applications and services that are designed specifically for modern infrastructure and capabilities.

Think cloud-native applications built on a microservices architecture to run – often in a highly automated way – in containers, for example. This is an understandable bias: applications designed or refactored to take full advantage of the outsized possibilities afforded by the hyperscale platforms should generate excitement.

Most enterprises can’t simply walk away from their existing application portfolio to begin anew in the cloud. Nor should they: larger, well-established companies have significant financial and technical investments in their so-called “legacy” systems. They’ve built up years and in some cases decades of internal knowledge and skills around these applications. In reality, “legacy” in the enterprise is often synonymous with “critical” – these are the tier-one/tier-two systems that these businesses literally run on, such as ERP platforms, HR systems, and other crucial software. 

However, most CIOs and other IT leaders are going to sit on the sidelines and watch their competitors attain the benefits of the cloud, from advanced data analytics to cost efficiencies to security improvements and more. They need to modernize their environments while protecting their legacy assets – which presents three significant challenges common across many different organizations.

First, companies must decide: Which cloud?

Answering this question can be significantly more complicated than it first seems, owing to the potentially long list of variables that IT leaders should consider: which application(s) are you migrating, and how? Is there a better industry or business fit with one platform over another? Which cloud’s capabilities will best serve the unique requirements of my legacy applications? Cloud is not one-size-fits-all, and IT leaders must weigh the capabilities of different clouds against their decision criteria, especially when they plan to move a legacy system there.

Second, organizations lack necessary internal skills and expertise

Teams are capable of learning, but may not be familiar with cloud at the onset of the project. This impacts not only the initial migration but also Day 2 operations and beyond, especially given the velocity of change and new features that the hyperscale platforms — namely Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform, and Microsoft Azure — roll out on a continuous basis. Without the necessary knowledge and experience, teams struggle to optimize their legacy system for cloud infrastructure and resources — and then don’t attain the full capabilities of these platforms.

Companies should rely on partners to develop a training and onboarding program as part of their engagement. Consulting firms have developed this for their own internal resources, and should be able to expose materials to their customers to help them ramp up quickly.

Third, when a business moves legacy systems to a cloud, it naturally brings with it a data center mentality

This means that they retain their old culture and approach to infrastructure even though that infrastructure has fundamentally changed. Resources like compute, networking and storage are now abstracted away and often managed as code, which can be an evolutionary change for traditional infrastructure operations teams. This can lead to significant issues such as unexpected cloud bills and unwanted security vulnerabilities since costs and security both change at a much faster pace than in a traditional data center. 

Fortunately, these are solvable problems: You can modernize your environment and applications while protecting your existing IT assets. We see three linking approaches for successful migrations of legacy systems – and optimal operations once there.

1. Focus on capabilities and business impacts.

Some organizations focus on financials when picking their preferred cloud platform, and that’s understandable to an extent — executives don’t tend to last long when they ignore their budgets. But the financials tend not to vary wildly, and IT leaders are better served by doing a deeper dive on the capabilities of a given cloud, especially as those apply to their particular application.

What will you be able to do once you’re there? What new doors will this or that cloud open for your business?

No one gains a competitive advantage from worrying about infrastructure these days; they win with a laser focus on transforming their applications and their business. That’s a big part of cloud’s appeal – it allows companies to do just that because it effectively takes traditional infrastructure concerns off their plates.

You can then shift your focus to business impacts of the new technologies at your disposal, such as the ability to extract data from a massive system like SAP and integrate with best-of-breed data analytics tooling for new insights.

That’s the kind of capability that leads to meaningful impacts, such as process improvement, increased margins, new product or service opportunities, and new top-line revenue streams.

2. Pick the right cloud partner.

The skills gap is real, and it will persist for a long time. Moreover, even as the labor market catches up, most organizations can’t suddenly hire and onboard a brand-new cloud engineering team. 

They can leverage a cloud partner, however — at a fraction of the cost compared with adding significant internal headcount — that can help ensure a smooth migration of their legacy systems and optimize cloud operations for long-term success.

This is a maturing ecosystem with a lot of options, each with its own different specialties and skillsets. Finding the right one is not unlike picking the right cloud: focus on capabilities, and ask sharp questions — especially about how they’ll handle your specific applications.

If a provider wants to show you some Powerpoint slides about their capabilities, for example, dig deeper. Ask to see examples of how a traditional application would run in a modern, digitized cloud environment.

3. Prioritize people, processes and culture when migrating legacy systems.

Some companies focus too narrowly on the technical aspects of migrating a traditional system to the cloud, and not enough on process and culture. The technology components are obviously crucial, but so are the people involved.

We regularly find that companies that prioritize people, processes and culture are more likely to succeed when migrating legacy apps to the cloud – and to thrive once they are there. Leaders must bring their people along on the journey – you can’t simply drop people into the ocean and expect them to learn how to swim.

This requires meaningful investments in people and culture, without which you will almost certainly struggle, not just during migration but over the long term. This will likely reduce or flat-out eliminate the business value you’re looking to deliver.

With that in mind, I’ll leave you with several actionable tactics for investing in the people on the team:

  • Give people buy-in. People should be part of the whole solution, not left in the dark until it’s time to migrate. Bring infrastructure operations and other functions into the conversation and give them a chance to offer input and be a part of the process.
  • Enable robust training on the new platform. Give relevant teams significant training opportunities on the new platform. Too many companies shortchange this process. There are plenty of ways to go about it — the platforms themselves offer educational resources; there are a many cloud and platform-specific professional certifications; there are third-party training and education platforms; and the right partner can help here, too,
  • Create career growth opportunities. This may be one of the most overlooked strategies in promoting a change in mindset and culture: Show how that change could benefit them. Perhaps they’ll get a chance to learn DevOps processes and tooling that make them more marketable, or grow into new cloud roles with meaningful opportunities to learn on the job. Whatever the specifics, people will be more likely to embrace change if they see the personal upside, not just how it benefits the company.

You can modernize and retain your crucial legacy investments. Just make sure you’ve got a plan of attack for the challenges.

Vince Lubsey is the CTO of Lemongrass.

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