How to plan a system migration in 10 steps

Hari Vignesh Jayapalan

November 14th, 2017

How do I plan a system migration?

A system migration refers to the process of moving an application from one environment to another (such as from an on-premises enterprise server to a cloud-based environment, from one server to another, or from cloud-to-cloud). You might, for example, migrate to or from custom-built on platforms like Microsoft Azure, the Google App Engine, Force.com, MySQL, or Amazon Web Services. Software migration is always a challenge, but fortunately many system migrations can be managed – and even automated - by a third-party middleware solution.

Sometimes a system migration might be something smaller scale. You might want to move installed applications and data from one piece of hardware to another (as you would when you give your team new computers), rather than moving an app’s entire development environment. While this is pretty easy in technical terms, making sure it’s carefully managed for users is nevertheless important.

Why migration?

Migrations done to improve efficiency or bring all applications from a legacy system into a current one. That’s why it’s becoming such a pressing issue for many organizations as they seek to undergo ‘digital transformation’ or optimize their existing setup.

Often, organizations will want to virtualize their software. This is ultimately about disassociating it with specific operating systems, instead hosting programs in separate environments for sandboxing at runtime. Here are some migration scenarios:

Example 1: You want to move your team using Adobe Creative Cloud (CC) from old PCs to new Macs. You need to ensure that once team members are working on Macs with Adobe CC installed, they’re still able to use paths to the server to access all creative assets.

Example 2: Your team uses custom software developed on one type of cloud environment — like Amazon Web Services (AWS) — and now your organization is moving en masse to Google Cloud Platform (GCP). You need to map each piece of functionality your app had on AWS to GCP, despite the major differences in how each environment operates.

How to successfully plan a system migration

The hard bit is actually planning and executing a system migration. There’s a lot that can go wrong from both a technical and people perspective. Here are 10 steps you should follow to remain (relatively) calm and in control when you’re making a move.

  1. Establish your cross-functional representatives. Because of the many hands required to see a software migration project through, and its long timeframe and far-off ROI, you need a champion in your corner — from every corner of the business. Get one key representative from each business function relevant to the software that’s moving — be it production, sales, accounting, IT, or another department. These people will help you gain continued support of the project as it continues without ROI yet and comes under budget threats during, say, a lean quarter.
  2. Frame the project for stakeholders. Be it department heads, the C-suite, or the board of directors, lay out the plan and just how essential it is for growth. Set up what the project entails, what it isn’t, and lay out goalposts for each phase. Whenever it comes under review, you’ll have this initial framework you and stakeholders agreed upon.
  3. Build a team of internal experts. Find technical experts within your organization who can assist with each part of the migration, even if you’re ultimately using a third-party vendor or software for the migration. Put these people in charge of cleaning or writing programs to clean existing data, knowing where everything is stored, and understanding limitations of the platforms on each end of the migration. Depending on the size of your organization, each member of this team may lead their own small team to handle their portion of the project.
  4. Take inventory of assets. There’s no way to judge a migration as successful if you’re not sure whether you lost any data along the way. In the case of data, some of your internal experts can check in on what is stored, making backups, and exporting to lightweight .CSV files or hard-copies (in the case of legal and other vital documentation). For software or applications, take inventory on each action and function possible with the software, how it interfaces with its databases, what it’s compatible with and what it isn’t, and the unique custom configurations it has that separate it from off-the-shelf software’s documentation.
  5. Create a risk assessment report. Using the section above on challenges, determine all relevant risks to the migration, including opportunity costs and compliance issues. This will be vital for getting final approval from stakeholders, and insulate project runners from being blindsided later. One of these risk assessment matrix templates can help you get started.
  6. Determine technical, time, and financial requirements. Work with individuals in finance to work out long-term budget needs and rates of approval over the whole project. Work with IT, developers, and engineering to figure out the technical aspects and requirements, what method of migration is appropriate, and who will be forced into downtime at what stages of the project. Compile all of this to figure out realistic timing and checkpoints in the migration.
  7. Create project management system for all parties. With the data you gathered in the previous step, and all the teams you’ve assembled (technical, cross-functional, and stakeholder teams), create a common project management hub where everyone can see progress, send messages, attach files and findings, and generally lend visibility into the process. It should be intuitive for all users. Set up the project management software with the budget and time expectations at each phase agreed upon. You can present this information to the stakeholders for final approval prior to project kickoff, and use it to submit regular reports to them as they request. 
  8. Perform the migration in phases. Depending on the appropriate methods, perform the migration and document every step. Use the project management tool to keep everyone informed and gather documentation. Along the way, when some employees inevitably leave or get added to the team, you can use this tool to quickly get them up to speed.
  9. Test cases after each phase. After each phase, test whatever you’ve migrated into the new environment, and document the outcomes. Regular testing and sandboxing will allow your team to catch problems early and regroup or change direction before data is lost and progress is wasted.
  10. Results. Once the migration is complete, record final results, and compare it to the goalposts set up and tracked in your project management tool. Combine all documentation and deliver a final report to stakeholders, and begin reaping the rewards of your newer, faster, better software, operating system, cloud environment, or whatever else you migrated.

By following the steps above, you should find your system migration a little more stress free than it might otherwise be!


Hari Vignesh Jayapalan is a Google Certified Android app developer, IDF Certified UI & UX Professional, street magician, fitness freak, technology enthusiast, and wannabe entrepreneur. He can be found on Twitter @HariofSpades.