In the world of technology, sometimes older is better—but only in certain situations. Pulling the classic car out of the garage, shifting into first gear, accelerating down the road, pressing the clutch, and getting that perfect upshift to second is both rewarding and exhilarating, at least for the car enthusiast. However, pulling the classic car out of the garage instead of the new family car, and packing a family and luggage into it for a 1,500 mile summer road trip is, for most people, not a sensible option. Lower reliability, risks of breakdowns or other issues, and potentially being unable to get something fixed along the road creates issues that most families would like to avoid. Sure, both will get you from point A to point B, but one will give you piece of mind, better efficiency, greater comfort, and a much stronger guarantee of service and reliability.

Old Technology and the Mobile Operator: A Recipe for Trouble

This analogy translates perfectly to the mobile operator and the way it manages IT systems internally. However, in this case, there are few instances where older is better. The telecommunications industry, in its continued evolution, must address the constant need to ensure all IT systems can adapt to changing needs. This includes the upstream and downstream needs of the networks as they evolve from 3G to 4G/LTE and to the bandwidth-rich 5G, the multiple touch point demands of the customer and the related technology end points that interact with them. The transactional nature of network events, customer interactions, and related monetizable activities requires an ongoing effort to ensure that each transaction can be successfully captured, managed, rated, and billed, if required, and stored for either compliance purposes or later business uses. As services evolve, older mobile operator infrastructure may have limited capabilities in throughput, performance, latency, and overall flexibility.

Balancing the investment challenges for existing legacy systems will always be top of mind for any C-level executive who spends time near the data center or buried in accounting. Investing in emerging technologies always makes business sense for a mobile operator, particularly since cloud computing, 5G networks, content services, SDN/NFV, and mobile apps are instrumental in helping the mobile operator save money, drive efficiency, help bring in new customers, and resonate with the C-suite. Throwing money at old systems however, even systems that seem to be working just fine, is a much harder sell in the long term. It’s easy to postpone these projects in the short term, but with every delay, the ability to adopt new services and technology gets postponed.

Mobile operators are at particular risk when their oldest legacy technology is suddenly exposed to the latest, most cutting-edge channels. Today’s customers expect a rich omni-channel environment that provides multiple access points to account information, offerings from the product catalog, real-time billing information, and a variety of ways to interface with the operator and each other. It’s virtually impossible to create the vast number of APIs needed to link to a legacy system that was never intended to be linked in such a way.

The key to making a business case for an upgrade to an old system that seems, on the surface, to be working just fine is to figure out a way to put a real dollar value on the future revenue risk. Let’s look at several scenarios that an operator must address throughout the life of a mission-critical system.

Paul Hughes
Director of Strategy, Netcracker Technology

Vendor Patch and Maintenance of Legacy Systems

In this scenario, one will assume that aging infrastructure is supported by the third-party vendor that originally supplied it. Decisions must be made on whether to support and patch fixes for a legacy system, particularly in cases where the infrastructure may be too business-critical to interrupt at a certain point in time. IT managers also run the risk that if a patch or upgrade to a legacy system has the potential to create more problems than it solves, such an upgrade might be put off until it’s tested further. In this situation, if the testing is put off indefinitely, one must take into account any performance losses, cost impacts, or negative business performance impacts that come from any outdated processes that may result. Systems that skip a patch or miss a software upgrade cycle typically create a more expensive process to upgrade to the most recent version. Systems that miss multiple upgrade cycles face potential performance or compliance issues. Similarly, missed upgrades can force a system into a state where it is virtually impossible to recover those features without a massive upgrade or potential system replacement.

Legacy System No Longer Vendor Supported

While this is typically an isolated case, there are instances where critical infrastructure that was supplied by a vendor is no longer supported, or the vendor went out of business. In this case, a short-term crisis would be averted if internal mobile operator IT professionals are well trained and versed in the platform enough to continue to support its operations, and potentially offer some custom patches where necessary. However, one would expect the long-term solution to be system replacement, with the new system initially running in parallel until all testing and data migration has been completed.

Custom Built Legacy Systems

Mobile operators with custom-built IT systems may gain substantial differentiation in the early stages, but over time, the long-term outlook for patches and upgrades grows increasingly expensive. Each patch or upgrade typically adds further custom code to the system, adding greater complexity to the solution roadmap, limiting any easy updatability that would be found in a more productized solution, and creating problems if those staff or vendor staff with intellectual property leave the organization.

How to Avoid Legacy Pitfalls – Plan for Obsolescence

In the communications industry, a typical back office system replacement cycle is 7 to 8 years. While many mobile operators will try and extend the life of a core system to limit disruptions and to save money in the short-term, even if a mobile operator accepts the long-term risk of keeping a legacy system active, the longer-term issue is loss of features/functionality that will eventually translate into a loss of competitive position. For example, a legacy billing system that cannot support third-party billing and partner management becomes a business detriment to a wireless operator looking to facilitate third-party applications within its service ecosystem. An order management system that can take in and decompose complex wireless bundled service orders is, again, a significant detriment not just to IT, but to the revenue of the business. Notwithstanding the system issues, keeping a legacy system around means that critical business processes remain mired in the older complexity of that legacy system. It’s possible that new IT employees who join will have to be trained to use the old system and then forced to relearn a new system once the realization of system inefficiency forces an unplanned replacement. Whether the operator risks data loss, process interruption, or both with older systems, the roadmap forward around planned obsolescence creates a structure, timeline, and the remaining risk to catastrophic failure instead of planned unavailability.

The best ways to avoid current and future legacy problems is to:

  • Build a cost-benefit analysis that shows the ongoing costs of patch and maintain versus replacement and different stages of the existing legacy system’s lifecycle.
  • Set clear expectations internally with BOTH business and IT stakeholders as to how older systems will be managed and replaced. The eventual changes may be physically visible to IT, but it directly impacts the business stakeholders who depend on such systems for greater service delivery flexibility or increased revenue potential.
  • Involve both business and IT in new system selection while planning is underway for the older system’s decommissioning. The silo between IT and the business side of the operator can become one of the most dangerous bottlenecks to the long-term success of the operator. Misaligning the needs of the business with the eventual actual capabilities of a replacement system increases costs and creates interdepartmental dissonance.
  • Set expectations that the new system's testing period, resiliency, and maintenance will supersede that of the legacy system, thus reinforcing the CSP’s need to divest itself from the old system.
  • Try a brand-new approach, as in: look to adopting technology in the cloud, or via managed services. The added flexibility of the cloud, and the shift of responsibility to the third-party provider, helps to reduce the risks of older legacy systems hanging around, and shift the onus of successful management and upgrades to the provider. Any false steps or movements are all tied to an SLA and thus help guarantee business continuity, upgradability, and longevity.

Unless the mobile industry suddenly reaches a state of eternal IT utopia, the issues the industry faces today with legacy infrastructure will be repeated over and over. Replacement cycles will be tied to consumers who want more information, the need for greater transparency in IT processes, better links between business IT, and richer, more profitable business outcomes. Choosing to follow the logical, cost effective steps mentioned above will help reduce risks, create better business synergies internally within the organization, and create new opportunities faster. The CSP business outcomes can only be more positive, just like the outcome of the family that chooses the new car for the road trip instead of the classic one—it’s more reliable, with more features and capabilities, and less risk of breakdowns along the journey.