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How to upgrade your legacy system to a modern IT solution

communication technology
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

Technology today moves quickly, often too fast for many businesses to keep up. Consequently, there comes a time in every company’s development when your equipment is no longer sufficient. While the financial weight of modernizing may be unappealing, relying on legacy systems carries many hidden costs and risks.

In 2019, the U.S. federal government spent 80 percent of its $90 billion IT expenditures on maintenance, mainly on legacy equipment. As this case exemplifies, the costs of maintaining outdated systems overtake the cost of modernizing after enough time. That figure doesn’t include the potential losses from security vulnerabilities or lost efficiency, either.

While the need for modernization may be clear, how to approach it often isn’t. With that in mind, here are some steps to follow to upgrade your legacy systems with minimal disruption.

1. Take inventory of all data 

The first step in modernizing your IT solution is to identify and organize all relevant data. Determine what data you need to move to the new system, and note its current format. If you need to convert it into a different format in the migration, take note of that, too.

You should also rank this data according to sensitivity. Migrating can create vulnerabilities, and your new IT solution may have different security considerations, so you need to know what information deserves the most attention. When you understand what data needs the most care in transition, you can move it more securely.

This inventory-taking must be your first step because it guides future actions. If you don’t have a comprehensive, in-depth understanding of the data you need to move, you may forget or expose something when migrating.

2. Define your immediate needs and long-term goals 

Next, you should define what your immediate needs for upgrading are. Then, communicate with co-workers and company leaders to understand why you're modernizing. Make sure you're as specific as possible in this step, as it will help you craft the most effective plan for your particular transition process.

Are you upgrading to improve the security of your mission-critical data? Are you doing it to create more organizational efficiency in historically slow processes? The reasons for your modernization will help you understand your immediate needs, such as which equipment or security systems you’ll need first.

After defining these immediate infrastructure needs, apply a similar thought process to your long-term goals. Ideally, your new system will last you for several years, so you should account for growth and development. Again, recording these goals can help guide future investments, especially if you take a slower approach to modernization.

3. Determine the most relevant modernization strategy 

Once you understand your data and know your immediate and long-term needs, you can find the best upgrading strategy. Generally speaking, there are three broad strategies for upgrading legacy IT systems. These are: 

  • Replace all of your legacy systems at once with entirely new technologies. You could either build a new system from the ground up or use off-the-shelf solutions. 
  • Gradually replace legacy components one by one, starting with the most critical improvements. Then, upgrade other systems as the need arises. 
  • Only patch some systems with new hardware, platforms, or processes. Most of your legacy systems will remain, but you’ll upgrade those in most dire need of change.

Each of these strategies carries unique advantages and disadvantages. For example, replacing everything at once can deliver positive ROIs quickly but will be expensive and disruptive. On the other hand, gradual replacements are typically more affordable but may create more vulnerabilities and workflow inconsistencies during the transition.

It's tempting to decide based solely on costs, but you should consider more factors as well. For example, consider the necessary skill sets compared to what you have, what security threats could emerge, how much it would disrupt your workflows, and so on. Businesses that plan this thoroughly are more than three times as likely to achieve their desired outcomes than those that migrate based on cost alone.

4. Aim for flexibility and simplicity 

As you look for replacement systems, look for simple, flexible solutions. Complex technologies can be alluring, as they can seem like higher-end options, but you want to minimize disruption wherever possible. Similarly, a more flexible system will make the transition easier and enable scalability for future upgrades.

Cloud solutions are ideal, as they’re highly flexible and often straightforward. Look for systems that can accommodate the tools your workers currently use, too, unless you’re also changing those.

5. Create backups of all critical data 

Before you begin the transition to newer systems, ensure you back up all critical data. Even with extensive planning, unforeseen circumstances and obstacles can still arise. Having backups will help mitigate any disruptions that may occur during the migration process.

While there are many available backup solutions, cloud storage is typically the best option. Services like Amazon Cloud Drive have built-in redundant backup systems, so even if something happens to the cloud, your data will still be safe. Cloud storage also makes it easier for employees to access any data they need during the migration.

6. Execute and document your plan 

After taking all of these steps during preparation, it's time to start executing your modernization plan. In the days leading up to this point, make sure you communicate with all affected employees, so they understand what to expect. You should also plan for any downtime needed in the process to fall on weekends or after work hours to minimize disruption.

Depending on the size and complexity of your migration, it could take several days or even weeks. If so, keep in continuous contact with workers to guide them through and note any problems they’ve encountered. This will smooth the transition process and help guide future action.

One easy-to-overlook part of this process to keep in mind is the importance of documentation. If you keep a thorough record of every change you made and its effects, it will be easier to pinpoint the source of any issues that arise. These records will also help guide any future modernization initiatives, showing what worked well and what didn’t.

7. Continue to monitor the new system 

Once you've completed the modernization process, remember to keep monitoring the new system. Some issues may not arise for several weeks after all employees have started using the new system. However, continued vigilance will help you spot and patch any problems before they become more pressing concerns.

Determine and document any relevant KPIs and benchmarks to help understand how to optimize the new system. These should include factors like weekly application status, risks, top issues, and applications used. Keeping track of these developments will reveal where you may need further development.

Start modernizing today 

IT modernization is a crucial step towards becoming more secure and competitive in today’s fast-moving market. While upgrading from legacy systems can be intimidating and is rarely straightforward, it doesn’t have to cause widespread disruption. If you follow these steps, you can upgrade your IT solution as painlessly and effectively as possible. 

Ruben Franzen, president, TOPdesk US

Ruben Franzen is the president of TOPdesk US, a leading global provider of innovative enterprise service management solutions.