Dan Lifshutz | July 7, 2016
I’m sure most people in IT thought the days of floppy disks as headline-worthy technology were long gone. I know I did. However, we were all proven wrong recently when the 8-inch floppy disk made a shocking return to the public eye. The storage devices featured prominently in a headline-grabbing report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlighting the U.S. government’s continued use of seriously outdated technology in critical roles.
Perhaps the most eye opening is the Department of Defense. The DoD relies on computers that utilize 8-inch floppy disks to run its Strategic Automated Command and Control System. This system helps coordinate America’s nuclear forces, including bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Also, as a business owner and taxpayer, it’s not comforting to find out about the Department of the Treasury’s reliance on technology that predates me. Apparently, the complete data sources for individual taxpayers and business income taxpayers both are written in roughly 56 year-old assembly language code.
One other thing you may have thought you’d never hear again? Those who are running Windows XP are almost ahead of the game. Sure, support for XP ended on April 8, 2014, making continuing to run it very dangerous. However, some agencies are still running Windows 3.1 which launched in 1992 and which Microsoft stopped supporting in 2001. Compared to that, XP almost seems cutting-edge.
These are some of the more egregious examples identified in the GAO’s report. While some agencies have set firm dates for sun-setting these tools, others are fine with the status quo.
3 reasons not to stand pat
The ancient tools weren’t the only things that caught my eye while reading these stories. The rationale given for their longevity also stood out. Why? I’ve heard similar reasons for not upgrading from potential customers. Far be it for me to tell the government how to operate, but in my experience, these reasons rarely hold up to scrutiny:
- Reason #1: “I don’t have the budget to upgrade.” Some businesses – or the government – may balk at the sight of a price tag for a new solution. However, that line of thinking rarely considers the big picture. As they wear down, legacy solutions become more expensive to maintain. In a few years, a business may spend far more keeping that aging system on its feet than they would replacing it. This could also come down to poor strategy as agencies spend three quarters of their IT budgets on maintaining outdated solutions, compared to a quarter on buying replacements.
- Reason #2: “The technology I have still works.” The old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it mindset” can be tough to overcome, but eventually, things will break. When they do, will someone be there to fix them? The skill sets needed to tend to legacy solutions, especially the extreme cases listed above, are fading from today’s workforce. In some cases, the government has had to hire people out of retirement in order to keep solutions running. This certainly adds to the complexity of managing IT solutions.
- Reason #3: “It’s old, but it’s still secure.” A breach-free track record doesn’t necessarily mean a secure system. It may mean the bad guys haven’t noticed the weak points yet. Cyber criminals are always on the hunt for easy targets. That’s exactly what organizations still running out-of-support operating systems such as Windows 3.1 or XP are making themselves. Keeping operating systems up to date and patched is a foundational piece of a strong security strategy. When those patches and updates stop coming, the risk skyrockets.
Modern solutions for the modern era
At Arraya, our goal is to keep our customers at the forefront of their fields. We believe the best way to maintain a competitive edge is to continue to evolve IT environments. While competition isn’t a concern for the federal government, there are other, more universal reasons to modernize, e.g., security. We’ve seen the struggles and complications encountered by those who’ve held true to the above reasons for too long and allowed their IT investments to stagnate.
The world is a very different place now than it was when assembly language code debuted 56 years ago. It’s also a very different than when Windows XP hit the shelves. Whether it’s over the course of decades or a few years, just as the world we live in changes, so too must the technology we use to support it.