The Foundations of IT Modernization

Mark Porter

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the term “modernization.” It’s a broad term that means different things to different people. To some, modernization means migrating legacy systems to the cloud. To others, it means rewriting applications, containerizing, or embracing microservices architecture. And to others still, modernization is synonymous with an equally amorphous (and ubiquitous) term: digital transformation.

However you define it, modernization is all the rage right now. IDC says these investments are growing at a compound annual growth rate of 15.5%, and will reach $6.8 trillion by 2023. (yeah, trillion, with a ‘t’).

This frenzy of spending on technology, services, and skills is intended to bring aging systems and business processes up to date. In many cases, these investments are urgent and necessary, as companies of all shapes and sizes, in every industry, must accelerate their pace of innovation in order to survive.

But the work of modernization is complex, costly, and technically challenging. It’s like renovating every room in a sprawling estate, while you’re still living in it. It’s hard to even know where to start.

To that end, I can’t help but think about the words of the CIO of a $30 billion insurance company who had already been on a modernization journey for years. He said: “We tried everything to accelerate innovation...but, in the end, it was our data platform that was holding us back.”

In other words, they were spending millions to fix up their estate, adding radiant heat, smart speakers, and a state-of-the-art home theater. But they were building on top of foundations that were first poured when disco was new. (I’m looking at you, relational databases, first conceived and implemented in the 1970s).

In the digital economy, companies succeed or fail based on how fast they innovate. More often than not, that innovation takes the form of software and services, which in turn create value by storing, manipulating, and querying data. And what do you use to store, manipulate, and query all that data? Your application data platform.

Years ago, that just meant ‘database with some scripts around it.’ Those days are gone. Now, an application data platform has to supply speed, governance, security, availability, and more.

So let’s get back my modernization metaphor. You can’t build new solid things on top of creaky, unstable, old things. We all know the old things I’m talking about; databases that make you structure your data in a way that isn’t natural, languages written to be so precise to the computer that they are inscrutable to developers, ‘roach motel’ storage systems that don’t store things in modern, open formats.

So if you want to modernize your infrastructure, or modernize your applications, or modernize the way you build software, shouldn’t you first modernize your data platform?

Sure, it’s hard to renovate your house. But this is where you live. And if you want that house to last, make sure it’s built on solid foundations.

What does that mean? It means that it’s not enough to design and build the right apps. If you want to be truly modern, look at how you input and output your data, how you query, manipulate, and store it, and how you program against it. Get those things right, and you dramatically increase your pace of innovation.

No matter where you are in your own modernization journey, it’s not too late to do this. Don’t believe it? Hit me back on Twitter at @MarkLovesTech and I’ll show you how.