George Walker, Managing Director of IT/OT management software specialist, Novotek UK and Ireland, makes the case for proactively upgrading legacy systems
Downtime owing to information technology glitches is a perennial problem. You can set your watch by their occurrence in the commercial aerospace industry alone ... and they’re often a direct consequence of failures in legacy hardware and software.
In early August 2019, British Airways suffered a dramatic systems failure that left hundreds of planes grounded and thousands of travellers stranded. This was an echo of a similar disruption suffered in May 2017, when 3 days of downtime cost the company an estimated £80 million.
This is a peculiar position that many companies find themselves in. Instead of a complete redesign when new software and hardware becomes available, the old systems are simply modified or added to, causing them to mutate into twisted patchworks of modern and legacy systems with time.
When systems become so imbricated and interdependent, it’s not surprising that situations arise wherein a small issue can cascade into a big mess. In the airline example, a plane pieced together in such a way would never fly, yet IT is left neglected. The planes don’t fly in either situation, after all, so from a company’s perspective they should carry similar weights.
Although the airline failures make the news, similar issues affect businesses across most industries every day.
Implementation of new standards is often an obligation, bringing improvements to safety and security, meaning a decision must be made to either marry the new with the old or replace the old entirely. The former is the easier choice as it’ll often be cheaper and will require less organisation and time.
It can also be argued that it’s hard to justify wholesale updates when the next standard could be just around the corner. Agriculture and food processing industries are particularly susceptible to this reasoning, as well as dependence on older tech, because of slim margins, shifting trends and seasonality.
That said, while looking good on the annual budget report, this approach misses the larger picture. The issue is that every time a legacy system is built upon it become immutable, and another point of failure is created. Like a house-of-cards, all it takes is a nudge for it to collapse.
Another question to ask is, if and when that collapse occurs, who fixes it? In the event the engineer responsible for maintaining the network is unreachable, for example through retirement, which is a growing phenomenon, it’s difficult to find support because the system is so specialised and monstrous.
A further compounding factor comes with increasing complexities and costs, in both downtime and funds, of replacement as the systems become increasingly complex and ingrained with every patch.
These are examples of technical debt and are, by the strictest definitions, negative feedback loops, where the easiest solutions dig the hole a little deeper each time. A different approach is needed.
The first step to addressing this is to consult a knowledgeable, trusted system integrator and take their advice on board. A broader, third-party overview provides valuable context, free from the potential trappings of internal company politics, and uncovers issues and opportunities that company engineers might miss or neglect.
Furthermore, the system integrator will be knowledgeable of the current and upcoming trends and developments in the relevant IT fields. This means the previously mentioned rebuttal of hesitation to invest, because the next standard could arrive next year, is mitigated because the recommended systems will scalable, modular and future-proof.
Although modern processing and control software will make up the majority of a redesigned system, effective SCADA systems such as GE Digital's iFIX manage the overall picture. Fourth-generation SCADA software provides unparalleled data collection and management, allowing for thoughtful, evidence-based decisions instead of best-guesses and compromises.
For any manufacturer, the benefits of future-proofed governing software are plain to see. Waste can be limited by process optimisation and unplanned downtime eliminated by individualised device monitoring, but crucially in this context, systematic exceptions can be caught, recorded and fixed before they can create a problem.
Technical debt is a pervasive issue that every modern business must tackle properly, lest it becomes a chronic issue.
It can be a bitter pill to swallow, but taking your business and positioning it ahead of the curve is the best way to avoid these roadblocks, secure your systems against catastrophic collapse and keep your business active.