Why Wal-Mart's CIO Calls Legacy IT Systems 'Classic' - InformationWeek

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Chris Murphy
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Why Wal-Mart's CIO Calls Legacy IT Systems 'Classic'

It's about motivating people with great talent who keep the lights on.

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Wal-Mart CIO Karenann Terrell prefers to refer to legacy IT systems as "classic." Her reason? To make the people tending to those systems feel good about their work.

"Classic is respectful for the people who are actually going to be keeping the lights on," while Wal-Mart goes through a significant IT modernization, Terrell told the InformationWeek Conference last week. "We don't have a choice of alienating people with language. Does anyone here believe they have all the talent they need? … It's really important to keep engaged those who are operating the environment as well as those who are changing it. Both are equally valuable but for completely different reasons."

Don't dismiss this "classic" idea as business-speak political correctness. Dealing with legacy IT environments, and particularly with how well companies connect legacy systems to their modern, often customer-facing mobile and cloud environments, will make or break some companies, and some CIO careers. Beyond the technical problems, though, legacy IT creates an HR and cultural challenge, if the keepers of long-running systems get diminished and only the builders rewarded.

Terrell even warned against thinking of "modernization" as a project with a beginning and an end. "With our classic environment, the moment we roll through the modernization of that, we'll see new trends in technology and new capabilities emerge," she said. "So modernization is just a way of working."

Wal-Mart's Karenann Terrell at the InformationWeek Conference.

Wal-Mart's Karenann Terrell at the InformationWeek Conference.

It's clear that the mobile and cloud revolutions will leave a lot of legacy IT firmly in place for many years to come. As the industry gets better at API-driven, lightweight integration with mobile, and Web apps, it might even slow the shift away from those long-running systems.

Again and again at the InformationWeek Conference, we heard IT leaders talk about how important it is for them to tie their existing business models -- and thus legacy systems -- to new, digital channels. Keeping good people motivated and well-trained in these keep-the-lights on jobs won't be easy.

[ Embracing Agile? Read Nordstrom VP's advice on taking the emotion out of agile transformation. ]

At Allstate, the IT organization calls these systems "evergreen," said Andy Zitney, Allstate senior VP of infrastructure, at the InformationWeek Conference.

In a 90-year-old insurance business, these systems might be decades old, including mainframe applications doing transactional work that faces high regulatory scrutiny. A veteran of PayPal, Zitney is driving a major IT innovation effort, bringing in agile development techniques, DevOps, and pushing new infrastructure approaches such as cloud computing architectures. But some of those evergreen applications will be the last -- if ever -- to be rewritten for cloud environments.

IT leaders face a staffing challenge as they modernize and maintain their classic/evergreen/legacy systems. There will be some turnover as the skill needs shift. But leaders can't afford to have a two-tier IT shop, with the cool kids doing the innovative new development work and the dead-end careers propping up the legacy systems the company must have to operate.

CIOs may get hired to innovate, but they get fired in a hurry if they can't keep the lights on.

Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek and co-chair of the InformationWeek Conference. He has been covering technology leadership and CIO strategy issues for InformationWeek since 1999. Before that, he was editor of the Budapest Business Journal, a business newspaper in ... View Full Bio
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User Rank: Apprentice
6/14/2015 | 4:45:32 AM
Re: IT priorities
Hi Thomas,
The answer to your question is not simple but here goes:

1) Being open and upgradable is only true briefly. Open source projects get abandoned as they become stale or just 'no longer cool'. We see open source are upgradeable because we are looking over a planning horizon of years not decades.

2) Open source is not always more maintainable; do we go for a clean, will constructed commercial stack of a loosely associated constellation of applications which happen to work together? We need to be very careful over which open source we go for. In a highly regulated environment, 'Any old Linux' is not going to cut it for example. A bank, or even a large retail chain, will not have the resources inhouse to manage an entire Linux stack and so has little choice but to buy in Redhat or one of the similar third party systems. Otherwise, the user of the stack cannot guarantee to the regulator due diligence over the stack they are using.

3) Now for the kicker, the mainframe. The problem here is that the open source, closed source or any other world has not yet provided a distributed computing alternative to large mainframe installations. The transnational consistency model available with System Z cannot be replicated using commodity hardware and modern networking technology in any meaningful way. The issue is throughput vs latency. You can code up a x86_64 server system to manage huge throughput with a consistent eventually model (think Google) or with a instantly consistent low latency model (think high frequency trading) but both at once is simply impossible due to all sorts of issues such as the Von Neuman bottle neck (i.e. main memory speeds), processor design, network latency, power constraints and hardware reliability.

So, if you have a 'classic' System Z based infrastructure the transactional consistency it provides is likely to be baked into the way the business works. It will be baked into the business's relationship with the regulators. It cannot be 'modernised' because there is nothing to modernise it to. It could be replaced, but that is not just replacing it but replacing an entire way of functioning for the business; this can amount to a complete pivot of a company's business model. Will the new business be competitive? Will it be hit by huge regulator fines? Will the disruption in the pivot cause irreparable damage to the business?

I do see a world, 15 ot even 26 years hence, where silicon to silicon fibre and fpga baked into network cards can start to allow x86_64 (or similar) based hardware to lift and shift away from System Z; but that is firmly in the future and still in doubt. Until such time, maintenance of classic systems will continue to be necessary and achieving small, incremental shifts away from those systems is all which even the most ambitious CIO should be expecting. I look back 15 years so see that distributed computing has scaled out enormously but has done little to tackle the transactional consistency vertical scaling issue; hence my prediction that we need at least another 15 years for that to happen.

Maybe, just maybe, it will never happen. We might still be using classic technology in 50 years time just as we are still driving around Otto Cycle engines which were invented over a century ago and have never been replaced by more modern systems.
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
5/6/2015 | 5:13:46 PM
IT priorities
Given the realities of legacy systems, I wonder why more emphasis isn't made on avoiding problems by adopting applications that are open and upgradeable, without lock-in or other burdens. Being an IT leader shouldn't mean kicking the can down the road for the next IT leader to deal with.
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