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Extending the life of legacy IT

Shutterstock image: illuminated connections between devices.

As FCW reported in a November 2015 article, U.S. CIO Tony Scott has raised the red flag regarding legacy federal IT systems and has likened their impact to that of the Year 2000 computer glitch. Specifically, Scott homed in on the looming wave of retirements among the experienced IT personnel who built and manage legacy IT systems and infrastructure and how that exodus will empty the government of intimate knowledge of how those older systems operate.

Scott's comments were in line with concerns he has raised elsewhere: that federal agencies often must dedicate their tight IT budgets to existing “legacy” projects, leaving scant dollars to invest in next-generation networks or fully replace aging systems. That refrain is increasingly heard across the U.S. public sector, and it will grow louder in the current budget climate.

Indeed, the Defense Department and civilian agencies alike are at a vexing inflection point when it comes to upgrading, replacing or even maintaining mission-critical legacy infrastructure that is essential to their day-to-day operations. Maintaining legacy systems can be costly. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that of the total technology budget of more than $78 billion earmarked for fiscal 2015, 26 agencies spent $60 billion on legacy investments. And the amount spent on obsolete IT has been increasing for the past six years.

Although the legacy infrastructure challenge is formidable, it is not insurmountable. A growing number of agencies are evaluating or deploying cloud-based unified communications with the dual objectives of extending the life of legacy IT assets and maximizing the benefits the cloud model can deliver.

Challenges of aging infrastructure

Legacy infrastructures, even when functionally satisfactory, present several challenges from a fiscal, security and workforce collaboration standpoint. As an infrastructure ages, it becomes more costly to support because technical resources are trained on new technologies, and parts are more expensive to source. Those fiscal pressures necessitate network consolidation, which translates into organizational consolidation.

At the same time, a greater need for mobile collaborative applications emerges because fewer resources span a larger spectrum of responsibility and enhanced security becomes more difficult as infrastructure ages.

Agencies attempt to address those challenges with budget-neutral transition plans or different consumption models. For the most part, capital funding is scarce due to presidential agenda items, which set priorities for spending. And achieving a budget-neutral plan for modernization is nearly impossible through on-premises systems that require heavy upfront and ongoing capital expenses.

An increasingly appealing and operating expense-friendly alternative is cloud-based unified communications, which can extend the life of legacy IT infrastructure by modernizing enterprisewide communications and collaboration -- without incurring the additional cost burden.

Defining unified communications

"Unified communications" is an elusive term to pin down because it can relate to platforms, services, applications and products. For these purposes, it is a methodology that unifies separate modes of communication into a single, combined user experience. Email, text and voice messaging work seamlessly with live voice, audio and video conferencing and web collaboration. Everything occurs in one interface, with “presence” notification to indicate a user’s availability to participate.

Agencies increasingly view cloud-based unified communications as a way to have a positive impact on a broad range of operations, including citizen engagement, costs, workforce mobility, productivity, and secure communications and data via any device and network.

Just as important, cloud unified communications services can be easily and cost-effectively layered onto an agency’s existing infrastructure, precluding the need to replace or significantly upend current systems in a way that is not financially feasible.

Reaping cloud benefits

Most agencies require four things in any new platform. The first is scalability, due to the size of agencies' user communities. Platforms must be able to support existing users and accommodate the potential for large communities of new users to be added as time progresses. A scalable solution should mean lower cost of ownership and fewer moving parts.

Second -- and an inherent part of scale -- are reliability and resiliency. The risk would be substantial if a massively scalable solution didn’t have a high degree of reliability. We talk about reliability in terms of statistics such as 5 minutes of downtime per year (99.999 percent uptime). We speak of resiliency in terms of having no single point of failure.

Interoperability is also crucial. Any platform must have the ability to work with existing infrastructure and applications, as well as adapt to and integrate newer technologies that propel user productivity.

And lastly, every new solution should have security built in. Once a set of security standards is defined, developers must ensure that new products meet or exceed them and are validated as such.

Cloud-based unified communications effectively address each of these agency platform requirements. They lower the costs associated with legacy IT by consolidating infrastructure and staff. They deliver new functionality to existing assets by enabling features such as telephony presence. They give agencies the flexibility to scale legacy IT infrastructure as current and future requirements demand. And they are open in order to be interoperable with existing IT infrastructure and accommodate new security requirements over time.

Unified communications are among a host of technology developments -- alongside the Internet of Things, mobile and cloud computing -- that can deliver greater flexibility, efficiency, automation and security. The technologies allow agencies to be more agile, remain innovative, align costs to actual use and ultimately better focus efforts on their core mission objectives. 

About the Author

Russell Brodsky is director of federal government sales at Unify.

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