Legacy IT Sucks

In my last few blog posts, I’ve been looking back at some of the ideas that were presented at Future:Net at VMworld this year. While I’ve discussed resource contention, hardware longevity, and event open source usage, I’ve avoided one topic that I think dictates more of the way our networks are built and operated today. It has very little to do with software, merchant hardware, or even development. It’s about legacy.

They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To

Every system in production today is running some form of legacy equipment. It doesn’t have to be an old switch in a faraway branch office closet. It doesn’t have to be an old Internet router. Often, it’s a critical piece of equipment that can’t be changed or upgraded without massive complications. These legacy pieces of the organization do more to dictate IT policies than any future technology can hope to impact.

In my own career, I’ve seen this numerous times. It could be the inability to upgrade workstation operating systems because users relied on WordPerfect for document creation and legacy document storage. And new workstations wouldn’t run WordPerfect. Or perhaps it cost too much to upgrade. Here, legacy software is the roadblock.

Perhaps it’s legacy hardware causing issues. Most wireless professionals agree that disabling older 802.11b data rates will help with network capacity issues and make things run more smoothly. But those data rates can only be configured if your wireless network clients are more modern. What if you’re still running 802.11b wireless inventory scanners? Or what if your old Cisco 7921 phones won’t run correctly without low data rates enabled? Legacy hardware dictates the configuration here.

In other cases, legacy software development is the limiting factor. I’ve run into a number of situations where legacy applications are dictating IT decisions. Not workstations and their productivity software. But enterprise applications like school grade book systems, time tracking applications, or even accounting programs. How about an accounting database that refuses to load if IPX/SPX isn’t enabled on a Novell server? Or an old AS/400 grade book that can’t be migrated to any computer system that runs software built in this century? Application development blocks newer systems from installation and operation.

Brownfields Forever

We’ve reached the point in IT where it’s safe to say that there are no more greenfield opportunities. The myth that there is an untapped area where no computer or network resources exist is ludicrous. Every organization that is going to be computerized is so right now. No opportunities exist to walk into a completely blank slate and do as you will.

Legacy is what makes a brownfield deployment difficult. Maybe it’s an old IP scheme. Or a server running RIP routing. Or maybe it’s a specialized dongle connected to a legacy server for licensing purposes that can’t be virtualized. These legacy systems and configurations have to be taken into account when planning for new deployments and new systems. You can’t just ignore a legacy system because you don’t like the requirements for operation.

This is part of the reason for the rise of modular-based pod deployments like those from Big Switch Networks. Big Switch realized early on that no one was going to scrap an entire networking setup just to deploy a new network based on BSN technology. And by developing a pod system to help rapidly insert BSN systems into existing operational models, Big Switch proved that you can non-disruptively bring new network areas online. This model has proven itself time and time again in the cloud deployment models that are favored by many today, including many of the Future:Net speakers.

Brownfields full of legacy equipment require careful planning and attention to detail. They also require that development and operations teams both understand the impact of the technical debt carried by an organization. By accounting for specialized configurations and needs, you can help bring portions of the network or systems architecture into the modern world while maintaining necessary services for legacy devices. Yes, it does sound a bit patronizing and contrived for most IT professionals. But given the talk of “burn it all to the ground and build fresh”, one must wonder if anyone truly does understand the impact of legacy technology investment.


Tom’s Take

You can’t walk away from debt. Whether it’s a credit card, a home loan, or the finance server that contains those records on an old DB2 database connected by a 10/100 FastEthernet switch. Part of my current frustration with the world of forward-looking proponents is that they often forget that you must support every part of the infrastructure. You can’t leave off systems in the same way you can’t leave off users. You can’t pretend that the AS/400 is gone when you scrap your entire network for new whitebox switches running open source OSes. You can’t hope that the old Oracle applications won’t have screwed up licensing the moment you migrate them all to AWS. You have to embrace legacy and work through it. You can plan for it to be upgraded and replaced at some point. But you can’t ignore it no matter how much it may suck.

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Resource Contention In IT – Time Is Never Enough

I’m at Future:NET this week and there’s a lot of talk about the future of what networking is going to look like from the perspective of vendors like Apstra, Veriflow, and Forward Networks. There’s also a great deal of discussion from customers and end users as well. One of the things that I think is being missed in all the talk about resources.

Time Is Not On Your Side

Many of the presenters, like Truman Boyes of Bloomberg and Peyton Maynard-Koran of EA, discussed the idea of building boxes from existing components instead of buying them from established networking vendors like Cisco and Arista. The argument does hold some valid ideas. If you can get your hardware from someone like EdgeCore or Accton and get your software from someone else like Pluribus Networks or Pica8 it looks like a slam dunk. You get 90% to 95% of a solution that you could get from Cisco with much less cost to you overall.

Companies like Facebook and Google have really pioneered this solution. Facebook’s OCP movement is really helping networking professionals understand the development that goes into building their own switches. Facebook’s commitment is also helping reduce the price of the components when an eager person wants to go build an OCP switch from parts they find at Radio Shack or from Amazon.

But, for Facebook, the development of a switch like this or the development of a platform is a sunk cost. Because the important resource to Facebook isn’t time. Facebook has teams of engineers sitting around developing things. For them, the time the least important resource. Time is something they have in abundance. Why is that? Because their development is entirely focused on their product. Google can afford to have 500 people working on a product with an IT focus like Google Reader or Google Wave because that’s what Google hires people to do.

Contrast that with the typical IT department at an enterprise. Even with thousands of users in Marketing, Management, and Finance there are usually only a handful of IT professionals. And those people have to cover storage, compute, networking, wireless, and software. The focus of the average law firm is not using IT resources to create a product. The focus of the business is leveraging IT to provide a service. A finance firm doesn’t have the time resources to commit to developing in-house solutions or creating IT hardware from components and freely available software.

Money, Money, Money.

Let’s look at the other side of the coin. Facebook and Google have oodles and oodles of time to build and develop things. They can get their developers to work together to build the hardware and software to integrate at a deep level. And because they understand it at that level, they can easily debug it instead of asking someone to solve their problem. What Facebook and Google don’t have is money.

To large firms like these, money is more important than time. When you have to purchase networking or storage equipment by the thousands or tens of thousands of units money becomes a huge issue. If you can save a few dollars per switch that can translate to huge savings in the long run. Even Facebook is doing this with OCP. By creating a demand for specific components for these devices, they can drive costs down across the board and save money for them. For Facebook, money is what is tracked for creating their infrastructure. The more that is saved, the more they can do with it.

In the enterprise, money isn’t quite as important as time. Money is important to businesses for sure. You don’t keep the lights on if you aren’t making money. But because IT supports the business and isn’t the entire business, money can be more easily allocated to projects from budgets. There are pools of money that can be used to purchase office furniture, catering services, or IT hardware. These resources can be reallocated efficiently like Facebook allocates time for projects. If the storage array needs to be upgraded or the wireless needs to be refreshed there can be discussions about how to accomplish it. Maybe the CEO doesn’t get a new desk this quarter. Or maybe there needs to be a few new sales discussions to create capital. But money isn’t as valuable as time. If you think I’m crazy try to get 10 minutes on a CEO’s calendar. Versus getting him to sign off on a purchase.

That’s the real value of cloud computing for IT professionals. They aren’t paying for scale or for availability. They’re really paying for time. They’re paying for a process that reduces the amount of time that they spend configuring low level tasks that are menial and time consuming. Building systems takes time. Automation reduces the time it takes. Process reduces it even further. So organizations looking to move to the cloud are essentially trading one resource, money, for a more important resource, time. Likewise, the large cloud providers that are building these systems are trading their resource, time, for a more valuable resource, money.


Tom’s Take

I don’t believe that smaller enterprises will ever truly embrace the idea of building their own OCP switches running custom Linux distros and custom built routing processes. Because to them, time is way too important. Time to focus on the business. Time to focus on supporting the way that the money is made. Time to do more. Likewise, I expect that large enterprises and providers like Facebook will continue to push the envelope of development and create new solutions. Because they have the time to play and test and build. And use those skills to make money. But I never see a world where those two places meet. Because resource contention is different between these two groups and it causes different outcomes. And the value of those resources are unlikely to change without massive disruption.