Remember the case when Delta Air Lines’ passengers complained that they couldn’t use the company’s app or get boarding passes because of a computer outage? The incident caused considerable damage to Delta’s business. Because of a short software failure there was a nationwide ground stop, resulting in loss of customer loyalty and irreparable damage to the company’s image. Thanks to this simple computer system breakdown more than 4,000 flights were canceled, and Delta offered its passengers $200 flight vouchers as an apology, amounting to a considerable expense.
The Delta Air Lines example is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to massive organizations using outdated software. Consider the fact that Paris’s Orly Airport has been using Windows 3.1 for their air traffic controllers for almost two decades! Just imagine, the flight-critical system relies on an operating system that came out in 1992. What’s more, the number of people who understand how to operate these ancient computers is steadily declining, so when machines went down in November 2015, airport managers were forced to waste precious time looking for a specialist to fix the situation. Obviously, Orly employees have a deep understanding of what legacy software means, and you may share this knowledge too. However, in order to clarify the main threats of using outdated technology, it’s necessary to start at the beginning, with a full understanding of what legacy software is.
What is Legacy Software?
“An information system that may be based on outdated technologies, but is critical to day-to-day operations”
Gartner’s definition of legacy software is quite vague, but let’s try to dig into it and determine what it means in practice. Outdated technologies are not used nowadays in development, and they are not compatible with newer ones. Unix platform, COBOL and IBM DB2 are common examples of aging technologies used frequently in companies today. This may come as a surprise, but Java is also on the road to becoming outdated, even though many companies still use it in development. We believe it’s quite critical for businesses to see clear examples, so let’s consider one more definition for a deeper understanding.
According to Businessdictionary, a legacy system is an“obsolete computer system that may still be in use because its data cannot be changed to newer or standard formats, or its application programs cannot be upgraded.” Therefore, it’s a system that companies virtually have to use, as they simply can’t migrate data or apply any updates while the software stays an integral part of the business processes.
Sounds like a pitfall for any business — being willing but unable to move forward. But despite this, there are many businesses, such as banks, that have used the same software for ages, and they are still thriving. Isn’t it proof that legacy software is not so dangerous? Well, here are at least three arguments that indicate otherwise.
Threats of Using Legacy Software
1. Wasted time
Sometimes, decision makers don’t realize their software has become outdated and, what’s worse, they don’t take any actions to mitigate this threat. After all, employees use this system every day, and they can tell management if something is wrong.
But there’s a big problem with this logic: Do decision markers ever ask the employees these questions? And what’s more, while management spends too much time deciding whether they need to modernize their software or not, the situation becomes worse and worse.
Maintenance costs grow, customers are lost because of system lags, and it’s impossible to apply new tools — these are just some of the satellite effects of legacy software.
Modernization or replacing the outdated system with a new one is a complex process that must be carefully planned. You won’t be able to fix a total system crash if you aren’t ready for it. In such cases, significantly more resources are required than if you perform pre-planned modernization actions.
2. Lack of vendor support
Another threat posed by legacy software is the common situation where, over time, vendors curtail their support systems for older environments and operating systems.
For instance, in 2014 Microsoft stopped offering Windows XP support, which meant its users were forced to migrate to Windows 7, 8 or 10. This act had dire consequences: In one single day, all businesses who used this operating system suddenly became vulnerable to harmful viruses and data breaches. Industries regulated by obligations like HIPAA could
lose compliance because of using insecure, outdated operating systems. Fortunately, Microsoft was prepared for the migration process and supported clients who needed assistance while moving to another version of Windows.
However, the risks caused by unsupported technologies are crystal-clear. When vendors discontinue support for outdated products, you will no longer be provided with security patches and you’ll be on your own for disaster recovery — a challenge that is not easy to overcome.
3. Mobility and the lack of required professionals
Legacy systems were developed years ago, at a time when people didn’t use the variety of devices we see today. As a result, today’s users can’t access legacy systems using tablets or smartphones, making interaction with these applications and systems very inconvenient. And legacy systems become even more inconvenient if a company lacks people who can handle an end-of-life system.
As an example, the United States Social Security Administration (SSA) still relies on the COBOL application for its processes, while more and more COBOL engineers retire every year. It’s not easy to
find a good engineer even for modern technologies, so you can imagine how complicated the search for an engineer specialized in outdated technology can be. However, this problem is not so painful until the system crash happens.
In the case of Orly Airport in Paris, where the air traffic control software runs on Windows 3.1, the software breakdown mentioned in the previous section endangered many lives. The secretary of the UNSA-IESSA air traffic controller union Alexandre Fiacre noted that the system is so old, they have only three specialists who are able to maintain it.
Even though there are many more worrying examples of threats from obsolete technology, a surprising number of companies continue to rely on legacy software. 5 Examples of Legacy Systems