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Technical debt does not disappear

By Stephen Spittal, Head of Operations

Cloud is currently seen by some of the clients I speak with, as the answer to associated technical debt. Technical debt is like any other debt – growing year-on-year, month-by-month. Simply relocating a workload from your dated compute stack to someone else’s system or service is not a panacea to every business-led postponement.

Whilst it is generally accepted that Cloud or even hybrid cloud has the potential to deliver positive business value, improvements in the operation of your IT systems do not just appear overnight. Any move to cloud servers requires a well thought out strategy. Many believe that moving to Cloud somehow negates technical debt. But workloads will continue to run on hardware and software, even if they are on a hosted or dedicated server.

Moving to Cloud servers can help address technical debt but you still need to think strategically and not just as a ‘lift and shift’ of cloud workloads exercise. All change has an effect and the impact of relocating cloud workloads with information and process relationships across your business to new execution venues, can have unintended and negative consequences.

If lift and shift is your only cloud strategy, all you end up fixing is a hardware problem – or rather, you give someone else the problem. But your cloud applications can still be running on the same Operating Systems and with the similar limitations.

It is also worth noting that, by simply moving applications to the Cloud without any form of digital transformation strategy, may actually increase IT operational costs. Businesses end up spending more, without enjoying the potential operational benefits that Cloud or hybrid cloud has the potential to offer. It will most likely blunt any optimism for cloud initiatives within organisations too, especially those in Finance.

Moving to the Cloud the right way

Some companies have not invested in their infrastructure technology for years so before making any move to cloud, they must dissect their existing systems and how it works. If systems have been ignored for years this can be a non-trivial challenge.

This means firstly looking at individual workloads, the platforms they sit on and their importance to the business. Then you must think about potential risk in terms of service availability, security and integrity. Only then can you start to think about what the next steps could be to the cloud.

If we’re talking about a workload that will be retired soon, then moving to Cloud or even hybrid cloud may not be the right thing to do. You may also need to consider if your existing systems are even able to operate in the Cloud or you may introduce a range of new problems as well as perpetuating existing ones.

It is a well-kept secret of even some of the most technically advanced companies are still running a couple of legacy applications on old hardware but that are still “working fine”. As long as they’re secure and that there is a plan in place to retire them, then OK… not great but “OK”.

Start with a workable timeline, making sure you’re ready with an exit plan so you know what will be replaced and when.

Making technology part of strategic business thinking

We see issues with technical debt with mergers and acquisitions too. Very often, these are looked at from every perspective except the technology.

You would be shocked if a company bought another one without having a very detailed look at exactly what financial debt that company is carrying. Consultants will be called in to carry out detailed analysis of the size of the business opportunity, and chances to expand into new markets. But too often businesses don’t take technical debt and existing systems, including cloud, into consideration.

We’ve seen companies that discover after a merger decision has been made that they cannot bring systems together without serious work and expenditure. This should be at the forefront of merger talks, not an afterthought.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the merger should not happen – it just needs to be factored into the decision making and the expectations. If there is technical debt to deal with, then just like financial debt, it’s better to deal with it sooner rather than later. It will not just get magically smaller if you ignore it.

Equally, if a company is running mostly in the Cloud it does not mean there won’t be issues with integrating systems. Moving from provider to provider can be just as complex as moving from on-premise systems to the cloud.

There can be a plus side too

At the same time, businesses should not ignore the opposite situation. There may be a company that is not perfectly matched as a takeover target except in terms of technology. It might be that they have systems that will work easily and well with yours. It might be that they have a fundamentally better infrastructure in place, allowing you to quickly shift your aging workloads onto.

Or it might be that only a merger is going to create the opportunity and board-level support for foundational technological change. Some business people struggle to see IT, even cloud as anything more than a cost centre. Also, technical debt can be largely invisible to non-technical executives. They may be aware that their legacy systems are slowing down growth, though often that’s all they know! A big strategic change like a merger provides a real opportunity to shake up that kind of thinking.

The right technology can genuinely power a business. Reducing technical debt can only come about with a clear strategy in place – with risk understood and with all stakeholders fully on board. It is only this kind of strategic, 360-degree clarity of thought that enables the right business decisions to be made and create the means for effective business transformation.

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