Yesterday’s technologies, today’s problems

It sounded like a joke: An airport in 2015 closing down because of a Windows 3.1 crash. It was real, though, and not that funny — and similar problems are hiding in your company.

tandy trs80 color computer coco
Credit: Source: Public domain, via Wikipedia

When I first heard the story, I didn’t believe it. I mean, really, a Paris airport forced to shut down because a computer running Windows 3.1 crashed? Seriously?

It wasn’t a joke. It was real. The airport had to close down because a 23-year-old operating system, never known for stability, crashed. Better that it was an operating system than an airplane, of course, but still!

I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. All of us are guilty of hanging on to obsolete software and hardware. I kept running Windows Server 2003 for months after Microsoft cut off its support lifeline.

That was months, though, not years. And I know some of you are still running Windows XP and 2003. It’s dangerous, we all know that. But then the date comes and there’s never enough time or money for an upgrade. One thing leads to another and, years later, there you are running obsolete junk held together by chewing gum, bailing wire and prayer.

Windows 3.1 is far from the oldest technology still in use. IBM’s OS/2, which went into early retirement in 1996, not longer after Windows 95 appeared, is still used by some bank ATM systems.

There’s a school district in Grand Rapids, Mich., where an ancient Commodore Amiga is still running the heating and AC systems for 19 schools.

If you think that’s bad, Huffman Industrial Warehouse in Eden, N.C., still uses an Apple IIe for accounting. Its “top-of-the-line” IIe has 128KB of RAM, a 1MHz 6502 CPU, an 80-column video card and, for storage, a pair of 5.25-inch floppy disk drives.

It’s not just small businesses on the sidelines of technology that hold on to the old stuff. I remember all too well that when I worked at NASA in the mid-1980s, we were still using gear from the mid-1950s. One of my jobs at the Goddard Space Flight Center was to track the availability of all communications lines for shuttle missions. Among other communication links, I monitored, albeit as a tertiary backup, a Telex line to the Bermuda tracking station.

These stores are all kind of cute, though, aren’t they? They appeal to our tech nostalgia. That’s fine for a small business, but it’s foolish for a large company or enterprise.

Sure, it’s unlikely that someone is going to crack, say, your SCO OpenServer inventory system. Hackers aren’t after the Internet’s antiques.

What those really old systems will do, however, is fail. I don’t know about you, but I sure wouldn’t want to try to restore data from a Windows 2000 system, never mind a VAX/VMS box, an AT&T 3B2 System V Release 3.2 Unix system, or a TRS Color Computer (endearingly known as CoCo). I didn’t pick these computers at random. I know people who are using all of them for production.

I can also guarantee that if you’re using a “modern” but out-of-date copy of Mac OS X, Linux or Windows, you will be attacked and hacked. If your system is on the Internet, it’s only a matter of days before your systems will be cracked.

Worse still are those embedded devices, such as Wi-Fi access points, that never get their firmware updated. Many of these contain cracked software, such as OpenSSL with the Heartbleed vulnerability. The problem here is that the vendors are no longer supporting them with firmware upgrades. For example, while I haven’t done a survey, I’d be shocked if your faithful 802.11g Wi-Fi access point has been hardened against any of the known OpenSSL bugs.

So, while I like the idea of “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” a lot, when it comes to business technology it’s just plain foolish. Keep your old systems to play with, but don’t, please don’t, keep them in production. You’ll regret it if you do.

This story, "Yesterday’s technologies, today’s problems" was originally published by Computerworld.

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