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IBM targets legacy modernisation with hybrid multicloud

Every few years, the foundations of IT architecture are shaken up, but few businesses can easily rip out old systems to stay aligned to the latest trend

During his opening remarks at the IBM Think Digital conference in May, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna discussed why he thought the coronavirus pandemic would accelerate the transition to digitisation of business.

“History will look back on this as the moment when the digital transformation of business and society suddenly accelerated,” he said. “This is an opportunity to develop new solutions, new ways of working and new partnerships that will benefit your company and your customers, not just today, but for years to come.”

IBM used the event to showcase how Red Hat OpenShift could enable enterprises to autonomously manage workloads across large volumes of edge devices. It also unveiled that AI in IT operations (AIOps) using the Watson AIOps engine had been built on Red Hat OpenShift to run across hybrid cloud environments.

IBM has identified hybrid cloud as the growth area it will focus on. Its £34bn acquisition of Red Hat in 2018 represents a concerted effort by Big Blue to build up a hybrid cloud offering, which it hopes will entice its existing customers and help enterprises to develop public and private cloud infrastructure.

There is immense interest in public cloud IT infrastructure. According to figures from Synergy Research, total datacentre infrastructure equipment revenues, including cloud and non-cloud, hardware and software, were $35.8bn in the first quarter, with public cloud infrastructure accounting for 37% of the total. 

Synergy Research found the pandemic had had relatively little impact on public cloud datacentre infrastructure, where hardware and software suppliers saw their revenues increase by 3%, but sales to enterprises and traditional service providers slipped by 4%.

Andrew Brown is the general manager for IBM cloud and cognitive software in Europe, a $4.5bn business with 3,000 employees. In a recent interview with Computer Weekly covering IT innovation, Brown discussed how the current fad for cloud-native architectures is analogous to previous generations of technology architectures. “Edge computing is client server computing at a different level,” he said. “Containers were LPars [logical partitions] on the mainframe or partitions on a hard drive.”

The fact that the new cloud-native approach to computing reflects similar architectures from previous eras of computing fits in very well with IBM’s overall vision for enterprise cloud computing.

Brown acknowledges that enterprises have invested in previous generations of technology. Core systems may have several years of life left in them, which means there is little appetite to replace them with modern, cloud-native applications. Such legacy applications need to be supported as the enterprise pushes forward a cloud-first approach to enterprise applications.   

Brown said IBM aims to support any cloud, regardless of which platform is used, even if this means keeping a core legacy application isolated in its own on-premise environment.

Binning old IT systems

Although CIOs would cherish the idea of binning all their old IT systems and start afresh, the reality is that they will have generation upon generation of IT built on platforms that came from different eras of IT.

“Java is not going away tomorrow,” said Brown. “This is why hybrid, multicloud support is essential.”

While CTOs can continue to invest in building out new technology architecture, said Brown, there is little point in a company spending, say, £6m, to migrate a core system if there is no real business value. “Leave it where it is, and provide access to some of the data it holds,” he said.

Describing a recent IT modernisation project at a financial institute that had an established IT estate comprising 1,200 applications, Brown said the team developed a traffic-light scorecard that enabled people to assess the value of modernisation work against the effort required. To assess the true cost of each application, said Brown, the IBM team used the company’s rate card for developer work to estimate the cost of rebuilding the application.

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“We converted low-effort, high-value applications first,” he said. These were the cloud-native applications. There were some applications needed by the business, but modernisation was considered impractical. IBM recommended reducing the extent to which business users could request changes to these.

“We set the to limit three to four major changes, but no application rewrites,” said Brown.

With the middle group of applications, Brown said IBM recommended creating reusable interfaces that could be used to unlock data in these applications in a way that would encourage reuse.

Securing the cloud

Brown is also responsible for IT security. Speaking about the Covid-19 lockdown, he said: “We are being attacked more so than ever.”

Ensuring that hybrid architectures are secure is an important aspect of IBM’s cloud strategy. Any weakness in any system can be exploited, he said, and although there are many benefits in building interfaces that enable modern cloud-native systems to share data with on-premise systems, any connection can be compromised. 

According to the Cloud threat landscape report 2020 from IBM’s X-Force Incident Response and Intelligence Services, the increase in cloud integration across enterprises and cloud-to-cloud interactions allow potential infections to spread across an enterprise even more quickly than on-premise attacks, and the vast amounts of data running in clouds can also increase the amount of data that threat actors could potentially steal.

The report warned that threat actors took advantage of misconfigured cloud servers to siphon more than one billion records from compromised environments in 2019. Misconfiguration of cloud environments and subsequent data leaks remain one of the greatest sources of record loss across the board and can quickly allow a threat actor to access and steal sensitive information from organisations where that sort of oversight may affect assets in the cloud.

Brown added: “If you don’t have great vulnerability protection, it is like leaving the door open.” He urged IT chiefs to understand the risk posture of their organisations and then put armour plating on everything.

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