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VMworld 2017: How to change the face of legacy

If change is the only constant, the IT industry is the 21st century engine of change, relentlessly grinding out more features at a faster rate

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Every second of every day, IT firms create changes to drive innovation as they vie to generate value to stakeholders – and sometimes to society.

Technology is no longer resigned to back-office support. It has the potential to change how a company is run thanks to modern infrastructure based on technologies like graphics processing units (GPUs), clouds and containers.

Corporate IT, on the other hand, has grown to build systems based on a sound foundation, which is now regarded as legacy IT.

At a roundtable that took place during the VMworld 2017 conference in Barcelona, a panel of experts, which included two chief technology officers at VMware and some of its customers, discussed the future of technology.

Russell Harte, CIO at furniture retailer DFS, said retailers face a big challenge with legacy as it holds back the rate at which they can adopt new technologies.

“It’s about how you unlock data for internal customers. We want to unlock our computing. We need to get efficiencies,” he said. “As a retailer, I think technology has been behind the game on understanding what customers have been demanding.”

Harte said management teams are also reluctant to take on new ideas because of the risk that something will go wrong. “You can take a revolutionary step, but in many businesses it is about evolving in a way that makes sense,” he said. “With technology it is about starting small and growing fast.”

Read more about legacy IT innovation

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Harte previously worked at pharmacy chain Boots, where he was involved in the retailer’s digital Wellbeing platform initiative. “It started when the dotcom bubble burst,” he said. “We started small and began to see the traffic grow then we used technology to accelerate that growth as fast as we could.

“We were the first, after Argos, to offer click and collect on the high street. Fear of what could happen to the retail organisation was apparent.” For instance, the business was concerned about the operational challenges it would face introducing click and collect, such as where to store all the boxes.

But by evolving and moving fast, he said many of the issues people feared were overcome. “Every so often you need a punt,” he said.

Ray O’Farrell, chief technology officer (CTO) at VMware, said that when it was originally deployed, legacy was the prime technology of the day, and organisations became “highly dependent” on it.

With new technology, O’Farrell recommended that users assess the degree to which they can embrace it and look at the impact the new technology could have on the old IT systems.

“It is all about managing risks,” he said. “Obviously you can’t be stupid and do something crazy, but you need to be able to say this thing will disrupt what I do. And that may be the right thing to do because it is better to disrupt yourself than have someone disrupt you. If an industry refuses to take that risk, someone else will do it.”

Snowflakes and pipelines

Joe Baguley, CTO for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at VMware, pointed out that a few years ago a datacentre was a bit like a museum of past mistakes. “When people talk about legacy, the issue is not that it is old, it’s that it is delicate,” he said. “I have a set of really delicate systems I can’t mess around with too much.”

Picking up on O’Farrell’s comments about the need to take risks, Baguley said: “If you are going to drive innovation in your organisation, you need an acceptance of risk and the risk of failure. Instead of building some kind of snowflake storage device, build a pipeline where you say you will take new technology into your organisation, and learn how to industrialise and make that technology robust to build a new future on top of it.”

This suggested approach leads to a so-called evolutionary pipeline of technology. “Legacy doesn’t hold you back,” he said. “It becomes a foundation on which you can build what you do next.”

While it may well be the case that some businesses have an appetite to try out cutting-edge technologies, many seem to be shackled by their ever-growing legacy IT estate. The panellists at VMworld believe technology can help. For instance, VMware essentially works by abstracting a layer of hardware and software, which means as technical components are changed, the system can still be managed in a consistent way.

But it is rare for a technology to be a speed bump to innovation. The rate at which people are able to take on change can often restrict the pace of change.

DFS’s Harte believes traditional IT has evolved in a way that means systems are run and managed in a certain way. “There is now a whole new generation of people who are used to doing things online,” he said.

As such, a new generation of admins may very well be tuned into a world of IT that is in constant change, and are engineering systems in an industrial way with an evolution pipeline to use VMware’s terminology.

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