“There are no more greenfield deployments,” says networking expert Tom Hollingsworth.
So with every new client you sign comes legacy network devices. This old equipment can act as a problematic headwind against your ability to help clients evolve to meet strategic goals.
The network “should be a tool to an organization like a set of screwdrivers to a mechanic,” says Douglas Grosfield, the CEO of Waterloo, Canada-based MSP Five Nines IT Solutions.
“If their equipment is not allowing them to take advantage of the latest applications, then they’re fighting the tools all the time instead of focusing on what they should be, which is being competitive in their own space.”Some of the technologies coming down the pike include advancements in the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and cybersecurity. “Aging equipment is simply not able to handle the increased bandwidth requirements” these technologies demand, says Grosfield.
Not all emerging technologies apply to all industries, of course. But that doesn’t mean your client won’t be at a disadvantage if their network can’t support them.
“The tools that are available in things like cybersecurity are rapidly evolving using AI, and if their network can’t handle or doesn’t provide them with the ability to get that data, then they’re going to exacerbate the problem,” Grosfield explains.
The risks of legacy hardware
There are three primary risks clients face with legacy gear, says Dan Conde, a networking analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group.
- Their business could be vulnerable to cyber threats.
- They may “not be able to deliver modern services to their end customers or internal customers.”
- They won’t be “able to run modern services that are up in the cloud.”
Old network devices can also cost clients more money than up-to-date equipment, since legacy infrastructure can demand greater time and effort for you to effectively manage. And that means you end up charging more—or you’re eating those costs, which isn’t great for you.
Moreover, if clients adopt a set-it-and-forget-it attitude, they could give their competitors an opportunity to gain market share, says Grosfield. “If you can’t get your products or services to market quickly enough and efficiently enough through enabling your company with the proper technology, then you’re falling further behind in your own industry.”
But it’s not just your client’s business that could suffer due to old network equipment, he continues. You may lose efficiency too because, “If you’ve got 100 bodies that are taking 15 minutes longer in an eight-hour day because the equipment is old and clunky and not capable of handling the bandwidth anymore, that’s a lot of minutes of inefficiency.”
Not to mention, if the network goes down because it can’t support emerging technologies, says Grosfield, “Your overall user experience is going to suck, and if users aren’t happy with a piece of technology they’re not going to use it. So your adoption rate of the technology’s going to drop and their satisfaction rate’s going to drop. And guess whose fault that is? It’s the tech services folks that take the blame for a poor end-user experience when in fact it’s aging equipment that’s being a bottleneck.”
What’s the delay?
The main problem you could face when you propose to update your clients’ networks is that many SMB clients consider IT an expense rather than an opportunity to evolve, says Grosfield.
“Everybody wants it cheaper and faster all the time, so they buy unmanaged switches. If you start getting a lot of systems on the network that are chatty, you’re generating a lot of traffic. Those older pieces of equipment that have thinner ‘pipes’ on the back panel of the switch are not able to handle the traffic. It’s like stepping on a water hose—you’re squelching the output.”
In contrast, many forward-looking companies believe “networking is not what it does, but what it enables. It enables better insights into security and allows you to do more innovative business transformation,” says Conde.
Legacy network equipment has the potential to impede both you and your clients from evolving. So how do you convince clients that the network is an enabler of strategic initiatives instead of a cost center?
Initiating the upgrade
One way to start the conversation about updating network infrastructure is to tie it back to business outcomes, says Grosfield.
“If you can articulate the benefits that investing in technology or upgrading the hardware or software will have on their business, then it’s a business decision for them. It’s no longer you trying to blind them with talk about technology.”
This is an example of what he calls being a strategic services provider rather than a managed services provider. “The expectation is a lot higher nowadays. You’ve got to be a lot more modular and strategic so you can react quicker. To be a strategic services provider, you can have that advisory role where you can plug into an organization as necessary and deliver more value as a result.”
Conde points out you may not have to rip and replace the entire network. “A lot of people say, ‘I’m afraid to change my network because now I have to remove these boxes that I’m accustomed to.’ And you can say no, leave them. Maybe you could just ask those boxes to do a little bit less than they were intended to do and simply route the traffic to another box or a VNF or maybe up to the cloud.”
Grosfield says the alternative to gradual replacement is to be creative in how you enable and charge to upgrade the devices. For example, he says, “Start thinking whether you can package product, software, and hardware so it’s part of their monthly spend with you, and you own that equipment.
“Or partner with leasing firms. Then an infrastructure upgrade is a lease, and that becomes an operating expense instead of the capital expenditure.”
In addition to being a strategic services provider, Grosfield considers himself his clients’ financial advisor “to help them invest in technologies to stay up to speed and give us the ability to deliver the high level of service that we’re promising. Otherwise we have to charge more for the service and it’s less attractive to them.”
Asking clients to implement a significant upgrade can be a hard conversation to have. (You want to be respectful, of course, and not apportion blame about the current state.) But it’s a conversation absolutely worth having.