Without question, we’ve seen more technological innovation in the last 30 years than we have in the last century. We now live in a reality of seemingly limitless possibilities and outcomes. Today, virtually any object can be considered part of an advanced, interconnected ecosystem. Companies across every sector are competing to reimagine customer engagement. The user experience is fundamentally changing as people, processes and services become more dynamically connected. Today’s smart, digital era represents unmatched opportunity for forward-thinking business leaders everywhere.
At the same time, however, it poses some challenges. Specifically, this rapid pace of innovation means businesses must find a way to quickly and efficiently modernize to competitively differentiate. In a time where digital disruptors are building custom IT environments on the fly, companies can no longer let legacy architecture dampen innovation and agility
Businesses know this all too well, with 90% of IT decision makers believing that legacy systems prevent them from harnessing the digital technologies they need to grow and thrive. This is especially true in industries like government and finance, where there’s still a heavy dependency on legacy technology. For example 71% of federal IT decision makers still use old operating systems to run important applications. Meanwhile, 30% of senior investment managers say they’re concerned about the ability of their current legacy systems to meet future regulatory requirements. This list goes on.
It’s clear that something needs to be done here, and fast. So, how exactly did we get to this point of digital disruption, and what can be done about legacy systems today? Let’s take a walk through recent history, and then discuss how companies can begin moving towards digital, next-generation IT.
Data Centralization to Decentralization
Let’s start where applications first began being consumed. About 30 to 40 years ago, all application intelligence was centralized (I’m sure some of you remember the good old mainframe days of using dumb terminals or emulators to access applications and store data centrally). There were some notable benefits to centralizing data in this fashion. There weren’t many issues with storage distribution, for instance, and disaster recovery procedures were clearly documented. Security challenges were also practically nonexistent because there wasn’t any local storage on the terminal (hence, dumb).
Soon, however, we saw the rise of the personal computer, which completely changed this model. Computing and storage could now be distributed, allowing local applications to run without any centralized dependency. This was a game-changer that sparked a desktop war between key market players like Microsoft (Windows), IBM (OS2), and Apple (MacOS).
This transition to decentralization, however, wasn’t without its challenges. Employees may have gained mobility, but IT began facing new challenges in security and distributed storage. Companies were left wondering how to best control their data storage, specifically where confidential information could easily be stored on a floppy disk, local hard drive and, later, USB drives. This remains a challenge to this day—no one wants to give up their mobility, so companies must find a way to instead regain control.
One thing to note: at this point, COTS (Commercial off-the-shelf) servers could now be used. These systems were far less proprietary than previous host systems like mainframes, VAX, etc. However, they were still hardware-dependent, as each platform was usually tailored to the applications it had to run. As a result, a good amount of compute, memory and storage resources were not being fully utilized. In fact, some services were running as low as only 10-20% capacity. While there were benefits to COTS servers, they called for a better way to maximize the use of all resources.
The Rise of Virtualization
The only viable solution to these problems was to eliminate hardware in favor of ONE single software application. But how? The market experienced profound change as companies strove to answer this question, eventually leading to the emergence of virtualization.
During this time, market leaders like VMware began transforming the industry by allowing multiple virtualized OS (virtual machines) to run simultaneously on the same hardware. In this way, applications ran as if they had their own dedicated compute, memory and storage. However, it was all being shared. Simply put, the hardware server had become virtualized. Brilliant!
This allowed companies to create virtual representations of resources such as compute, memory and storage devices. Companies could now run multiple applications over the same physical hardware, in a way that appeared to the applications as though they were running over their own dedicated hardware. More importantly, companies could now fully leverage every single resource at their disposal. Nothing would be left dormant or unused in this virtualized model, unlike what we saw in the past with a dedicated appliance/server per application.
At this point, it was a no brainer to move into the virtualized application world. However, the ugly truth remained: we were still using a legacy networking framework. Many continue to refer to this as client-server, but the bottom line is that it was a hierarchical model that required each node and link to be configured to carry or simulate end-to-end virtualization. Even though the application environment was virtualized, the infrastructure on which it ran was not built with that in mind. It didn’t matter if you were using VLANs, VRFs or even MPLS—it was a complex way of providing end-to-end virtualized services.
Who would finally be able to solve this issue? It seemed the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) were on the right track with the standardization of an Ethernet protocol that allows end-to-end services virtualization, which finally took place in May 2012. This is known as SPB, or Shortest Path Bridging (IEEE 802.1aq and IETF RFC 6329 for those interested). And there you have it: servers, applications and networks are now finally virtualized! Are we done? Well, not quite … even desktops are being virtualized, known as VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) to re-centralize control.
Overall, virtualization became the de facto model that allowed businesses to run applications on what we know as the Cloud. With private and public models, customers could now choose what assets they wanted to own (that is, manage on premises) or have hosted through the public cloud. Soon, however, the challenge became how to run apps in these clouds. Companies quickly discovered the need to store some applications (like regulatory and compliance data) in an onsite private cloud. Meanwhile, other data was best suited for the public cloud. This is how the hybrid cloud deployment model was born.
Hybrid cloud allowed companies to operate in an environment that strategically utilized the best of both worlds—both on-premises private cloud and third-party public cloud services—to meet their core objectives. In this new world of cloud orchestration, we saw the rise of digital giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook. With a high level of cloud elasticity, providers could now spin up series of virtual applications or services in less than an hour to run them in the public cloud. This unhinged the doors of opportunity for companies everywhere. These providers allowed organizations to create new instances on the fly and shut them down just as quickly. It’s used, for example, to soft launch new products or test drive business in new marketplaces.
But let’s not forget the issue that remains to this day: we have yet to completely move away from all aging hardware. In today’s world of any-to-any communication, driven by technologies like the IoT, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, legacy hardware and hierarchical networking architecture are not just an inconvenience. They can break your business if you don’t have a strategy to reduce that dependency.
Finally Breaking Free of Hardware
The bottom line is that any-to-any communications have won the battle (unlike 15 years ago, where IT largely resisted and essentially shut down the peer-to-peer model). As a result, what many refer to as “meshed communication architecture” emerged as the newest and strongest-yet approach to network design.
This kind of architecture is integrated, agile and future-proof enough to effectively and securely support a services-based ecosystem. The days of nodal configuration and virtualization are a thing of the past. It’s vital that companies move to this services-based architecture to be able to support the future of the customer experience. Consider how it’s essential for supporting smart cars that can autonomously park and change lanes, while being redirected to alternate routes because of traffic congestion. It’s critical for supporting smart home solutions that enable homeowners to remotely manage utility usage. It’s crucial for delivering the most value possible to those who matter most: end-users.
For decades, we’ve been trying to eliminate a primal dependency on hardware. To finally break the silos associated with hardware, companies must begin setting themselves up to support any-to-any communication. In this environment, all services can virtually run anywhere across multiple sources of hardware that can be geographically dispersed.
Now that we know what can be done about legacy systems (transition to an open, software-enabled, meshed architecture), let’s discuss how companies can successfully integrate digital into their existing environment to transform business. Stay tuned for more.