9 Tips for Modernizing Aging IT Systems

One of the biggest IT challenges of the day remains how to make do with what you’ve got. At least you can take it up a level and learn from experience by your peers.

Pam Baker, Contributing Writer

July 28, 2022

10 Min Read
rusted gears and metal
Svitlana Belinska via Alamy Stock

In a perfect world, refresh cycles would regularly leave the IT shop all new and shiny. Unfortunately, there’s not much that’s perfect in the real world. Shiny left the building a long time ago when much of IT’s assets moved to the cloud. As for new stuff, well that’s an old dream in a new normal where old systems clang their worn beat on a recession drum.

That description a little too poetic for your taste? No worries: To spell it out in terms of practical nuts and bolts, most in IT are charged with making old systems work for yet another budget period at production levels on par with the new systems they aren’t allowed to buy. Like an old-timey shade tree mechanic or a poor hero in an early Star Wars movie, you’re faced with the challenge of souping-up those systems with whatever spare parts, patchy modules, new bolts, and spit polish you can muster. But that doesn’t mean you have to do it all from scratch.

Here are nine valuable tips from others who earned their shade tree mechanic accolades by pulling IT hot rod wonders from a junkyard heap. Or, you know, modernized aging systems FTW, despite the many challenges.

1. Count the fails

It’s not the age of the system, necessarily, that is the biggest problem. Where it fails to do your bidding is the real issue.

“The first step in modernizing your IT system is to identify the specific failings of your current legacy system,” says Mo Hafez, senior solutions engineer at Expereo, an internet, cloud connectivity and SD-WAN provider. “Whether your specific problems or concerns are security, infrastructure, or a combination of those problems, identifying them early will ensure that your modernization efforts will be as efficient as possible.”

Be prepared though because asking and answering, “what’s broken?” results in a bear of an exercise and it might eat you -- or at least your efforts -- if you aren’t careful. Remember: bite, don’t get bitten.

“The hardest, most challenging part involves setting your and your team's expectations. A transformation requires taking little bites, one area at a time,” says Philip Morehead, director of product at Nexient, an agile software development provider.

2. Compare apples to barrels

Once you’ve identified where the failures are in aging systems, compute the costs in fixes, patches, upgrades, and add-ons to bring the system up to modern requirements. Now add any additional costs likely to be incurred in the near future to keep this system going. Compare the total to other available options, including a new or newer system.

“While this isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, the last 2.5 years have proven just how quickly priorities can change,” says Brian Haines, chief strategy officer for FM:Systems, an integrated workspace management system software provider. “Rather than investing in point solutions that may serve the specific needs of the organization today, a workplace tech solution that offers the ability to add or even remove certain functions later to the same system means organizations can more efficiently respond to ever-changing business, employee, workplace, visitor and even asset needs going forward.”

“This also helps IT teams drastically reduce the time needed to shop for, invest in, and deploy a separate solution that may or may not be compatible,” Haines adds.

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison as the options vary significantly. But since they are suited for the same or equal function in the business, there are no oranges in this comparison either. The new systems do bring additional functionality though, which is why they can be represented by barrels rather than simply apples.

Do the math. Make a decision. Move on with confidence.

3. Accelerate the automation

Let’s face it. The organization is greater than the sum of its people. Meaning there simply aren’t enough humans to do everything that needs to be done. Automation is essential and therefore should also be a priority in modernizing legacy systems. But beware, this is not a ‘set it and forget it’ scenario.

“When it comes to automation, it's all about building value to drive value. To modernize aging systems, there has to be a proactive approach to automation and understanding the ripple effects that come with it -- then training for them across,” says Karlo Bustos, vice-president of Professional Services at Board Americas, a decision-making platform provider.

Make smart automation plans a part of your overall implementation strategy for modernizing your legacy systems.

4. Do a madness check

You’re not saddled with legacy systems because you have a fetish for old and cranky tech. It’s much more likely that you inherited that bag of treachery, became a victim of way too many budget cuts, or got sucked into a black-hole mandate. Other types of madness may also be to blame.

“A significant challenge for IT experts is that some organizations have been previously unable to replace legacy systems due to regulatory or organizational mandates,” says Rod Simmons, vice president of product strategy at Omada, a provider of Identity Governance and Administration (IGA) software. “Many organizations also succumb to the ‘sunk cost’ fallacy. They’ve invested so much time, money and energy into legacy systems that are barely working. Not to mention they are spending so much time trying to make what they have work, that it feels impossible to consider how things could be better.”

If this sounds like your situation, stop and take a breath. Then question what it is you truly need to accomplish here, recognizing that company goals and needs may be vastly different than the loop your IT team may have been caught in over previous years.

If you discern that it isn’t madness to keep the old fixer-upper then by all means proceed to fix it upper. Just be sure first that you aren’t throwing good money after bad. But also recognize that new doesn’t always mean improved and you may actually improve things by modernizing what you already have.

5. Get new keys

When you modernize legacy tech you can accidently create a few more gaps in its security. One such security flaw can spring from reusing old security keys. Either the keys themselves are already compromised, or you forget to destroy them when you get or make new keys and the old ones get compromised later.

“Today’s IT systems, whether aging or up-to-date, suffer from harvesting attacks,” explains John Prisco, CEO and founder of Safe Quantum. “Harvesting attacks are hacks by bad actors who intercept and store encrypted data plus the encryption key which is shipped along with the encrypted data and used to decrypt the data when it reaches its destination.”

Current encryption keys may be enough for now, given their enormous size and the inherent difficulty in cracking them. However, Prisco warns that harvesting attackers are very patient and can be sitting on your system waiting on quantum computing to come online. If that’s a concern for your company, you may want to investigate the quantum keys that are already available.

“Quantum keys are made up of light particles or photons. This type of key cannot be stolen or copied due to the quantum nature of photons. They cannot be observed (stolen) without changing their quantum state, thereby rendering the quantum key unusable to decrypt secret data,” says Prisco.

While you’re tinkering around to make the system better, fit it with new security keys of some type, pay attention to whom you give assess to these new keys, and destroy the old keys.

6. Be fickle about partners

The reality is that you’ll need more partners and sometimes different partners as dictated by the needs of your business over time. There is no discernable advantage to being overly loyal or sentimental about any given partner, no matter how familiar or how cozy the relationship in the past.

“In today’s hybrid reality, long-term stability will require a flexible integration framework that enables easier interconnectivity with the appropriate security controls,” says Bob Lamendola, SVP of technology and head of digital services center. “Organizations must recognize the need to be agile with the ability to change partners or components of their hybrid model as required. By placing integration framework at the core of an architecture, it becomes much less of a heavy lift each time an organization wants to incorporate a new solution.”

Also look for ways to replace or augment partners with automation, AI, or simplified functionality.

"As organizations continue to digitize, they're creating a massive amount of tech debt that they must eventually reconcile in order to modernize their software applications,” says Nick Gamble, head of evangelism at Unqork, a no-code application development platform provider. “To overcome this, we're seeing more enterprises turn to no-code to support a ‘composable transformation’ -- creating net-new applications built one at a time that enable a gradual approach to modernizing legacy apps.”

7. Decouple data

Legacy applications and platforms are of the data silos. This is a potentially fatal flaw for any effort to modernize or optimize now -- and going forward. So, look hard at freeing up that data and breaking down silos everywhere you can.

“De-couple data stores that are used by many monolithic applications and consolidate behind enterprise accessible services such as APIs,” advises Mark Schlesinger, senior technical fellow at Broadridge Financial Solutions.

Break all the black boxes, too.

“Mainframes are often called ‘black boxes’ of info for a reason: They're webs of personalized code that have been managed by countless developer hands that have either exited their posts or retired altogether,” says Tim Jones, managing director of application modernization at Advanced, an international provider of application modernization services.

“Powerful and automated tools can be used to expose mainframe artifacts that organizations didn't realize they had, relationships they didn't know existed, and assets that they no longer use. This helps inform the best disposition strategies and target environment architectures that will make sense for each distinct project and, in turn, minimize cost and overall complexities of them,” Jones adds.

You may need a partner that is an expert in this type of black box cracking to help you get this done.

8. Double down on containers

Containers can make modernization easier, but they can also be used to double your deployments quickly and efficiently.

“Use containers in lower-level public cloud environments to build products that will be deployed to production on the private cloud, as well as for products that will be deployed in production to the public cloud when time to market is critical and/or when future portability is expected to be necessary,” says Mark Schlesinger, senior technical fellow at Broadridge Financial Solutions.

“In these cases, a clear ‘day 2’ roadmap must be agreed to and funded to fully modernize the applications in the container to be consistent with the more fulsome modernization requirements which is a true cloud native implementation,” Schlesinger adds.

9. Reach for new tools even to fix old tech

Most modernization projects these days are too big to do fast and yet must be completed quickly. Your set of familiar tools may not be enough to get you across the finish line in time. Don’t hesitate to reach for new tools to make the work quicker.

“By utilizing modern IT models, new approaches to IT like DevOps or site reliability engineering [SRE], and particularly new advancements in technology like AIOps, more IT teams are leveraging AI-driven intelligence and automation to make quick and accurate decisions, allowing them to deliver resiliency despite immense pressures,” says Dinesh Nirmal, general manager for IBM Automation.

“AIOps specifically helps organizations get the rich observability information necessary to understand and maintain the health of their IT assets and handle complex issues like resource provisioning or IT incidents with automation - compounding the benefits of practices like DevOps or SRE," Nirmal adds.

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About the Author(s)

Pam Baker

Contributing Writer

A prolific writer and analyst, Pam Baker's published work appears in many leading publications. She's also the author of several books, the most recent of which are "Decision Intelligence for Dummies" and "ChatGPT For Dummies." Baker is also a popular speaker at technology conferences and a member of the National Press Club, Society of Professional Journalists, and the Internet Press Guild.

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