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Outdated technology: A channel partner challenge

Channel companies find no shortage of out-of-date technologies -- from Windows Server 2003 machines to aging Unix systems -- in their customer's data centers.

Jim Turner has no qualms in saying that when channel partners encounter outdated technology at customers' data centers, it raises an issue that can change the relationship between channel partners and their clients.

"A channel partner that is truly working in the best interest of [its] client will not let [the] client use old technology in a production environment," said Turner, president of Hilltop Consultants Inc., a managed service provider (MSP) with headquarters in Washington D.C. "If a client is unwilling to listen to our advice, we may have to revisit the terms of our relationship."

Turner is not alone in recognizing the very serious consequences -- for the channel partner and the client -- that aging hardware and software pose in the data center. When vendors no longer support servers, networking equipment and operating systems, customers are exposed to data security vulnerabilities, reduced server and storage performance and increasing costs to maintain aging technology.

Additionally, customers bear the burden of paying higher costs associated with increased energy usage when compared with newer, energy-efficient hardware. Another problem is worker retention which becomes an issue when employees bolt to firms where they can work on the latest technology.

Outdated technology: A pervasive problem

Recent research from Softchoice, a company based in Toronto that analyzed nearly 90,000 servers at more than 200 organizations, indicated that outdated technology is widespread across data centers. Nearly a month before Microsoft's July 14 deadline ending support for Windows Server 2003, Softchoice found that 21% of servers scanned in the first half of 2015 were still running on that operating system.

David Brisbois, senior manager of Assessment and Technology Deployment Services Consulting, SoftchoiceDavid Brisbois

In his appraisal of the data, David Brisbois, senior manager of Assessment and Technology Deployment Services Consulting at Softchoice, said some company executives don't upgrade their Windows Server 2003 servers because those servers are set up to do a single function such as file and print. He also noted that, in the past, upgrading from Windows Server 2003 to 2010 or 2012 was a linear upgrade. Today, the migration path is more complicated.

"There are multiple points to lead that operating system and that could include moving to the cloud, virtualization or migrating applications to run on hyper-converged architecture. It's a lot harder and it's a more complex exit strategy from older equipment to new technology," Brisbois said.

Softchoice, a systems integrator and MSP, also evaluated networking equipment in another study published in August. Of the 52,000 networking devices at more than 200 organizations, the study found that 60% of businesses have end-of-support devices operating in their networks. The analysis also revealed that 95% of organizations have network-attached devices that are end-of-sale units, which are devices that are no longer available on the market, but are still supported by the manufacturer.

Older operating systems are also pervasive according to another Softchoice study that analyzed more than 480,000 desktops at 203 companies between January and June of this year (see chart).

A channel partner that is truly working in the best interest of [its] client will not let [the] client use old technology in a production environment.
Jim Turnerpresident, Hilltop Consultants

As systems age, the need to pay close attention to how vendors are handling support for their systems is an ongoing process that leads to many other decisions. For example, Turner said he's noticed that some vendors have not yet upgraded their applications to work with Windows 7, much less Windows 8.x and Windows 10.x. As a result, customers are required to maintain Windows XP computers.

"In some instances, clients wish to maintain legacy versions of software on Windows XP computers, even though the vendor has an upgraded version. However, if our client is only keeping the application in order to archive data, they may not wish to pay for the application upgrade," Turner said.

Mark Campbell, director of Innovation Research at Trace3, a solutions provider with headquarters in Irvine, Calif., said he's seen non-commodity servers or operating system silos built around technologies such as Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX, IBM's AIX and Solaris, a Unix operating system originally developed by Sun Microsystems, as well as tapes for storing data. According to Campbell, these aging technologies that lie in the rigid plumbing of the data center keep companies from forging ahead with new innovative development.

Mark Campbell, director, Innovation Research, Trace3Mark Campbell

"The biggest issue we see is the sunk cost bias that keeps the eyes of the company ever-focused on the time, effort and political capital spent on the legacy solution," Campbell said.

He noted that company executives view an upgrade with an overdose of skepticism, expressing views like: "'I've spent $38 million on our enterprise data warehouse. I don't want to hear how we can replace most of it with a $250,000 Hadoop cluster.'"

Migration opportunities and strategies

However, migrating from outdated technology to newer technology can save customers money, improve their business operations and create business opportunities for channel partners. That's what happened when Systems Marketing Inc. (SMI), a systems integrator based in Fairfield, Conn., embarked on a project with a large pharmaceutical client to standardize on Fujitsu M10 servers.

Currently, the pharmaceutical company is in the process of replacing up to 120 Sun SPARC-based servers by going with SMI's recommendation of the Fujitsu M10-4 server.

The upgrade, which is half-way completed, is already reaping benefits for the pharmaceutical company which has experienced significant operational improvements, including:

  • The ability to replace two Sun Fire 6800s and one Sun Fire 6900 with a single Fujitsu M10-4;
  • Immediate cost saving in power cooling and annual maintenance fees;
  • An 86% energy usages reduction A 95% shrinkage in data center footprint;
  • The option to continue running Oracle Solaris 10 indefinitely; and
  • The ability to purchase one Fujitsu M10-4 server for the same amount it was paying for the annual maintenance cost of multiple older systems, all of which could be consolidated into the M10-4.

One issue SMI is facing in migrating the pharmaceutical client's old servers to newer technology: the company's applications run on older operating systems such as Solaris 8 and 9, and the new Fujitsu M10 servers only run Solaris 10 or later versions of that operating system. Applications running on Solaris 8 or 9 cannot necessarily be migrated, in their current form, to the new servers and may not run on Solaris 10 without significant modification. According to Peter McLoughlin, SMI's president, virtualization has addressed this issue.

"The customer was consolidating multiple old SPARC systems into a single [Fujitsu M10]. That process is facilitated by being able to virtualize an entire Solaris 8 or 9 server into a container within Solaris 10," McLoughlin said.

He noted that application compatibility risk is eliminated because the application is still running on the old operating system, but with all the benefits of the new technology.

"While those applications will eventually be updated, Solaris virtualization makes for a relatively seamless transition to the new systems," McLoughlin said.

As channel partners seek ways to introduce new technologies with minimal disruption or risk, McLoughlin recommends that new systems be initially introduced in a simulated test environment, then as a redundant system to the old technology.

Softchoice software study
Softchoice software study

"Often this means the channel partner makes available loaner/evaluation systems, which we have done," McLoughlin said. "New systems are brought into final production only when all compatibilities with applications, network connectivity etc. are assured."

For Trace3's Campbell, one of the most important aspects of a migration strategy is to focus on the people, politics and culture of an organization. He said organizations often have a vested interest in seeing the status quo remain intact and individuals often face the crippling fear that innovation could augment, demote or even replace their skills.

At Trace 3, the company starts a migration project by evaluating the "people problem," which involves identifying who or what are the inhibitors, who will likely be marginalized (or perceived to be marginalized) by the new technology, should these factions be won over or bypassed, and will the expected benefits outweigh the potential costs.

"Another differentiating technique we use is we don't look for an executive sponsor; we look for an executive owner and have [him] champion the effort," Campbell said. "Without a fifth columnist innovator, the effort is probably unlikely to flourish," Campbell said.

Next Steps

Read about how channel companies handle the disposition of obsolete and redundant IT assets.

Find out about the risk of continuing to run Windows 2003 systems.

Get the details on a public sector legacy systems migration project.

This was last published in October 2015

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What strategies do you pursue when you encounter outdated technology at a customer's site?
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You can point out the difficulties that the outdated technology will cause. But realistically, you can't expect all of your clients to be using top of the line technologies, unless you're really in the position to exclude a lot of potential customers and revenue. 
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Thanks for the feedback, abuell. Instant modernization will rarely occur, but IT services companies can at least conduct triage and identify systems that should be at the front of the queue for replacement when budget permits. 
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I learn about the context. There might be a good reason behind it. The business goal is never to have it "latest and greatest". The business goal is to have it good enough for addressing the problems.
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Excellent point, agareev. Thanks for your feedback. 
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