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Why CIOs need to find ways to manage the old and the new

In IT, nothing is ever reinvented and nothing ever really goes away. We investigate how IT departments can remain agile while managing legacy assets

IT leaders never seem to switch off old systems – and this technical debt is adding to the strain on already-stretched IT departments, a new study from McKinsey and Henley Business School has found.

Sharm Manwani, a professor at Henley Business School who teaches enterprise architectures, said: “Over time, everything becomes more pervasive, from the old world of back-office IT to the new world of e-commerce and now digital, cloud and IoT [internet of things].”

Manwani, who previously worked as a CIO at Diageo and Electrolux, added: “None of the back-office systems disappear. The customer systems don’t disappear either. Instead, we are seeing layers of technology.”

Research from Henley Business School and McKinsey shows that to be agile, businesses are choosing not to re-engineer legacy systems, said Manwani: “They either add another interface or do something totally separate.”

But this is not a sustainable approach to managing digitisation initiatives, he said. “You can’t keep doing this. Without the engagement of an enterprise architect, businesses will reduce their agility in the medium term.”

Just as restructuring of the IT department will never happen on its own, Manwani said: “You should not do major transformation piecemeal.” The enterprise architect's role is to present a coherent plan that can be used as a blueprint to underpin a digital transformation initiative, he added.

“When we teach practitioners in the architecture space, it takes some time for them to absorb that they can, and should, engage in strategy development,” he said. “Preparing an architecture target state linked to the strategy is essential. This often requires new capabilities and mindsets.”

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Manwani’s advice may not fit well in the era of DevOps, where developers are being encouraged to express themselves, and are given the freedom to use the software tools and platforms that meet their needs best. But even in the era of DevOps, an enterprise architect is still key, said Manwani – but the role has changed.

“If you go back to the 1990, you had object-oriented programming, component-based development and SOA [service-oriented architecture],” he said. “All provide a Lego architecture nirvana. The latest journey in Lego nirvana is microservices and many people are doing it. But you still need to connect things together.” 

Manwani believes this is where an enterprise architect has a key role to play. “The role of an enterprise architect is not what it was 20 years ago, when enterprises needed to know how to implement SAP,” he said. “Now it is about what architecture will help the business meet short- and longer-term objectives.”

Benefits of deploying microservices

Microservices offer organisations a way to continually chip away at their significant legacy IT footprint. In essence, developers create new microservices that replace small pieces of functionality that previously ran in the legacy system. Over time, this should result in less reliance on the legacy system, leaving a much smaller legacy core that is potentially easier for IT to manage.

The study found that digital leaders recognise the need for a more modular, perpetually evolving architecture and to implement more services (on average 191, versus 63 in the peer group). They are also more likely to work with latest innovations, such as microservices.

Computer Weekly recently spoke to information and analytics company Elsevier about its use of Red Hat OpenShift to power a microservices strategy. Tom Perry, director of software engineering at Elsevier, said: “We looked at providing access to enterprise data and exposing a set on enterprise API [application programming interface] for future reuse.”

With API management, Elsevier shifted from SOA to an architecture based on microservices. This has enabled its developers to take an agile approach to developing new applications, which can access enterprise data using microservices.

Managing complexity in IT

Most people in IT expect the IT landscape to become increasingly complex. While the right tools can help to manage this complexity, some organisations are changing the role of IT.

Rather than manage all IT from the top down, Heathrow Airport, for instance, has gone through a digital transformation, rolling out Microsoft Power BI across the organisation. The benefit is that the people who work at the airport are encouraged to create their own analytics – something that was previously handled by IT.

Heathrow CIO Stuart Birrell thinks CIOs should stop worrying about keeping control of everything IT-related, and sees no problem in letting users create their own analytics. “If someone built some data analytics in half a day, why worry about it?” he said. “Put monitors on it, and if it has not been used for six months, then put a stop on it.”

So, as the IT environment becomes more complex, to enable people in the business to use IT to innovate, the IT department needs to relinquish some of its controls, while tightening up the software management aspects of the job. For Manwani, the enterprise architect has to work closely with senior leadership of the business to ensure the right IT architecture is in place to execute a digital transformation strategy.

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