Are you running old and unsupported software? What about the risks?

by Frank 29. April 2012 20:59

Many years ago we released a 16 bit product called RecFind version 3.2 and we made a really big mistake. We gave it so much functionality (much of it way ahead of its time) and we made it so stable that we still have thousands of users.

It is running under operating systems like XP it was never developed for or certified for and is still ‘doing the job’ for hundreds of our customers. Most frustratingly, when we try to get them to upgrade they usually say, “We can’t justify the expense because it is working fine and doing everything we need it to do.”

However, RecFind 3.2 is decommissioned, unsupported and, the databases it uses (Btrieve, Disam and an early version of SQL Server) and also no longer supported by their vendors.

So our customers are capturing and managing critical business records with totally unsupported software. Most importantly, most of them also do not have any kind of support agreement with us (and this really hurts because they say they don’t need a support agreement because the system doesn’t fail) so when the old system catastrophically fails, which it will, they are on their own.

Being a slow learner, ten years ago I replaced RecFind 3.2 and RecFind 4.0 with RecFind 5.0, a brand new 32 bit product. Once again I gave it too much functionality and made it way too stable. We now have hundreds of customers still using old and unsupported versions of RecFind 5.0 and when we try to convince them to upgrade we get that same response, “It is still working fine and doing everything we need it to do.”

If I was smarter I would have built-in a date-related software time bomb to stop old systems from working when they were well past their use-by date. However, that would have been a breach of faith so it is not something we have or will ever do. It is still a good idea, though probably illegal, because it would have protected our customers’ records far better than our old and unsupported systems do now.

In my experience, most senior executives talk about risk management but very few actually practice it. All over the world I have customers with millions of vital business records stored and managed in systems that are likely to fail the next time IT updates desktop or server operating systems or databases. We have warned them multiple times but to no avail. Senior application owners and senior IT people are ignoring the risk and, I suspect, not making senior management aware of the inevitable disaster. They are not managing risk; they are ignoring risk and just hoping it won’t happen in their reign.

Of course, it isn’t just our products that are still running under IT environments they were never designed or certified for; this is a very common problem. The only worse problem I can think of is the ginormous amount of critical business data being ‘managed’ in poorly designed, totally insecure and teetering-on-failure, unsupportable Access and Excel systems; many of them in the back offices of major banks and financial institutions. One of my customers called the 80 or so Access systems that had been developed across his organization as the world’s greatest virus. None had been properly designed, none had any security and most were impossible to maintain once a key employee or contractor had left.

Before you ask, yes we do produce regular updates for current products and yes we do completely redesign and redevelop our core systems like RecFind about every five years to utilize the very latest technology. We also offer all the tools and services necessary for any customer to upgrade to our new releases; we make it as easy and as low cost as possible for our customers to upgrade to the latest release but we still have hundreds of customers and many thousands of users utilizing old, unsupported and about-to-fail software.

There is an old expression that says you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. I am starting to feel like an old, tired and very frustrated farmer with hundreds of thirsty horses on the edge of expiration. What can I do next to solve the problem?

Luckily for my customers, Microsoft Windows Vista was a failure and very few of them actually rolled it out. Also, luckily for my customers, SQL Server 2005 was a good and stable product and very few found it necessary to upgrade to SQL Server 2008 (soon to be SQL Server 2012). This means that most of my customers using old and unsupported versions of RecFind are utilizing XP and SQL Server 2005, but this will soon change and when it does my old products will become unstable and even just stop working. It is just good luck and good design (programmed tightly to the Microsoft API) that some (e.g., 3.2) still work under XP. RecFind 3.2 and 4.0 were never certified under XP.

So we have a mini-Y2K coming but try as I may I can’t seem to convince my customers of the need to protect their critical and irreplaceable (are they going to rescan all those documents from 10 years ago?) data. And, as I alluded to above, I am absolutely positive that we are only one of thousands of computer software companies in this same position.

In fairness to my customers, the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 was a major factor in the disappearance of upgrade budgets. If the call is to either upgrade software or retain staff then I would also vote to retain staff. Money is as tight as it has ever been and I can understand why upgrade projects have been delayed and shelved. However, none of this changes the facts or averts the coming data-loss disaster.

All over the world government agencies and companies are managing critical business data in old and unsupported systems that will inevitably fail with catastrophic consequences. It is time someone started managing this risk; are you?


Comments (2) -

Template Design
Template Design United States
9/20/2012 12:05:14 AM #

Great informational post as always!Thanks for keeping us update..


Michael United States
3/28/2013 7:46:32 AM #

Very interesting article.  It would be much more powerful if you included a specific example.  Do you know of any specific examples of unsupported applications that stopped working due to an infrastructure change that then created a significant business impact?


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