Myths of modernizing legacy information technology systems


The days of holding onto legacy IT systems are over. The Trump administration’s executive order on IT transformation has made data center and network modernization an issue of “how” and “when,” not “if.” Despite that mandate, federal agencies often struggle to transition from legacy facilities and mindsets. Why? Three myths tend to be at the root of government IT intransigence.

Myth #1: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The first mandate to consolidate and modernize data centers was issued by the Obama administration in 2010. It was cautiously well received as a potential game changer for the industry. But, eight years later, 11 agencies are not on track to meet their assigned data center closure goals, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The slow pace of modernization is partly due to the idea that decades-old systems still seem to be working. If they have performed well for this long, why would agencies change?

The aging workforce is a contributing factor, as many government IT professionals are approaching retirement. In fact, one-third of U.S. data center professionals expect to be retired in the next six years, according to a recent Vertiv report, Data Center 2025: Closer to the Edge. These IT professionals may be reluctant to undertake a modernization project right before retirement, leaving the next generation of leaders to embrace innovation.

The truth is that outdated mindsets and systems carry serious risks. Legacy systems are vulnerable to security breaches and outages, often woefully inefficient and can cause headaches and cost millions. Although the original systems were state-of-the-art when installed, both technology and cyber crime have advanced, making it hard for older systems to keep up. Agencies using equipment that is approaching or past the manufacturer’s end-of-life date risk security and availability.

Problems also arise when legacy systems try to integrate with newer systems that feature more robust computing or the machine-to-machine communication common to today’s IT and infrastructure systems. Bottom line: When it comes to most legacy equipment: If it ain’t broke, it’s just a matter of time.

In fact, there has never been a better time to modernize. The rise of modular and pre-fabricated solutions make it easier and quicker to deploy modern systems. Hybrid approaches can provide a customized mix of on-premise traditional IT with private and public cloud resources to address the security, availability and performance issues of legacy systems. At the end of the day, this isn’t the massive undertaking it was 10 years ago, thanks to these prefab and hybrid options. The key is to have a defined road map and a trusted partner who knows the landscape.

Myth #2: “Modernizing isn’t worth the investment.”

Legacy systems are a money pit. Each year, government agencies spend millions of dollars on service and maintenance for increasingly obsolete systems — money that could be spent on equipment investments and upgrades. This means limited budgets are earmarked to fix old systems instead of investing in improving IT performance.

Transitioning away from legacy systems, however, will bring down the total cost of ownership. Today’s IT equipment and infrastructure are more efficient — which cuts energy costs — and more reliable, which reduces expensive network downtime and service costs. Another benefit: modern systems have a smaller environmental footprint.

The up-front investment in modernization can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Today’s IT infrastructure systems are designed with modularity and scalability in mind, making it easier than ever to manage technology refresh cycles and adjust to changing capacity needs. Pre-fabricated and modular solutions can allow agencies to tackle projects in phases to make the investment more palatable. For example, a legacy data center transition might be completed one power or thermal unit at a time, allowing the upgrades to be managed on a schedule that fits agency budgets and timelines, but still delivers the security and efficiency savings needed.

Myth #3: “We can patch our existing system instead of upgrading.”

Though less common, some agencies think that firmware patches can solve modernization challenges. This type of approach can seem less expensive, but it actually costs more in the long run. Systems aren’t optimized, which leads to alarmingly low utilization rates and inefficient zombie servers.

More importantly, patches are Band-Aids that don’t address the root issues. Instead, they often create problems with integration and communication/visibility, and those issues can lead to outages and security vulnerabilities.

Rather than deploy emergency upgrades due to equipment failure or lack of available parts, agencies should strategically modernize over time through a series of well-planned tech refreshes. The process is minimally disruptive to operations, and the end result is much more efficient than a patch.

Bottom line

A common thread runs through all of these myths: insufficient understanding of the benefits of modernization and a lack of support along the journey, which can be difficult to navigate. In fact, most projects fail because of the absence of a detailed road map.

To be successful, an undertaking of this scale requires a plan and commitment to the process. A trusted partner or adviser can help agencies dispel these myths and smooth the path toward modernization.