I have been running a consulting practice specializing in IT infrastructure for smaller companies for over 20 years, so I've seen my fair share of horror stories when it comes to supporting obsolete software.
For example, business has been very good for one of my clients. As a result, the business needed to expand they needed more test workstations. When I inquired about the system requirements, I knew the project was in trouble because the businesses used some homegrown software written for Windows 3.1 and an ISA test board.
In order to help the business grow, there were two key issues to resolve. First, Microsoft has not supported Windows 3.1 for many years, so forget about upgrading that system we needed to do an OS migration (define). Second, the person who wrote the custom software was no longer with the company. Fortunately for the business, I was able to recycle some old systems that were lying in a junk pile, since it is impossible to purchase a new machine that would support such a configuration. But next time the company might not be so lucky.
Another client of mine was recently sold to another company. In merging the corporate applications with the new company, the company's parts inventory list mysteriously became corrupt. After a bit of investigation, it was determined that year's before a former employee had written a data transfer program that uploaded key fields into the main corporate database. This application processed the records so that they were readable by the database application, and then used terminal emulation software to FTP (define) the records. The source code was missing, the programmer long gone, and the terminal emulation software dated from before 1992. At least that was the date on the sticky note attached to the box the actual software copyright was 1985. I spent several weeks straightening out that little mess.
Do you have business critical software that is no longer vendor-supported because the company either has gone out of business or does not support ancient versions anymore? If you do, and more than likely you have it buried in the back office somewhere, you are just asking for trouble.
Let's discuss how to identify unsupportable software and what to do when you find it. Migrating to modern supported software may cost you in the short-term, but it will ultimately save you from massive and potentially expensive headaches in the long-term.
What you will quickly discover is that even if the vendor of your precious legacy software is still in business, it does not mean that they are still supporting the 10-year-old version that your small business is relying on.
Another common scenario is that you are forced to upgrade your operating system because of another critical application and you find that you have broken your other applications in the process. If you are lucky, most vendors generally will support two versions before the current release. Anything older is too expensive for them to maintain. Sometimes to save support costs, a vendor will give you an incentive deal to upgrade. If it is specialized expensive software, the vendor will be anxious to help you upgrade because it will save them money. By all means, take advantage of the offer.
What happens if you find that the vendor is no longer in business?
If the customer base is large enough, then you might find that there is a cottage industry of businesses willing to support you for a price. I recently had to use an after-market support organization to change some systems settings on an antique operating system. The company spent several weeks locating a former employee who knew the system well enough to make the required changes. Needless to say, I was under-whelmed with the support response.
Drivers, Updates and Patches
What happens if your old printer breaks and you realize that no modern printer will work with the application? Do not expect the vendor to whip up some drivers for you. Any company that is writing drivers for 10-year-old software is committing commercial suicide. I recently had to explain to a customer that the new color printer he had purchased was never going to be supported on his Windows 98 platform. If you are lucky, the equipment will work with generic drivers that already exist, but I would not count on it.
With all the recent press about security holes and system worms, there has been a flurry of patches and updates to address the problems. Despite promises of support, Microsoft is not writing patches for Windows NT. This does not mean that NT has security holes; on the contrary, it means that you are even more vulnerable to security breaches by remaining on that platform.
Standard, Not Custom Spplications
Now that you have a better understanding of the hazards of maintaining legacy software and unsupported versions of commercial software, what can you do about it?
First, unless you have a very good reason for maintaining the old version, upgrade to the most recent version available. You might be very comfortable with WordPerfect 5.1, but Microsoft Word serves the same function. Most IT staff loves to bash Microsoft products, but the truth is that they mostly do what you need them to do, and if you remain reasonably current with your versions, they are supported.
If you have been putting the decision off for a few years, you might find that you will need to upgrade your hardware and invest in training at the same time. With the falling systems prices, you will still come out ahead.
Think very hard, before investing in custom software. Few small businesses can support the maintenance costs and headaches. There is so much commercial software available. It's highly likely that someone has written a standard application that will cover 90 percent of the functionality you need at a fraction of the cost.
It may seem cheaper in the short-term to put off a software upgrade, but it can be ultimately very expensive if you are attempting to maintain the software in-house or even worse, trying to locate a company that may or may not still be able to support your needs as your legacy applications become increasingly obsolete. In conclusion, plan to replace those old expensive applications before they leave you without recourse.
Beth Cohen is president of Luth Computer Specialists, a consulting practice specializing in IT infrastructure for smaller companies. She has been in the trenches supporting company IT infrastructure for over 20 years in a number of different fields including architecture, construction, engineering, software, telecommunications, and research. She is currently consulting, teaching college IT courses, and writing a book about IT for the small enterprise. She is available to consult with your company to solve your specific IT infrastructure problems.
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