“Move to DEFCON 2″ – ”Right Lads, Load the floppy disks!” – In Defence of the Classic, Well Sort Of…

I was amused, yet in truth unsurprised, by the news this morning that much of the American Nuclear Defence systems still rely on the technology of the “Floppy Disk”.  I guess the journalistic intent was to “spin” some fear into that fact, as the inference was that the systems are no longer “fit for purpose”.

However, this is not, in its simplest form, in any way the case.  Firstly, these will be fairly “stand alone”, or at least very “bounded”, systems; so in terms of risk, that materially significantly reduces it.  And by the way, despite the inference, there is nothing inherently wrong with older technologies.

I am a classic car fan, and love the simplicity of the technology.  The driving experience is still lovely, every component under the bonnet I can name, and probably repair or replace, which is a joy.  When they break down, however, you do have to adopt some different repair options.

It is still possible to buy some parts brand new, as the technology has spanned the generations.  It is also possible, with more popular classic models, to buy re-manufactured parts, (sometimes of inconsistent fit and quality).  And then there is the “Holy Grail” option of new old stock, or “NOS” as it’s referred to.  This is the cat-nip of the vintage car world – a brand new component from the manufacturer, that has stood the test of time, and has avoided the crusher, shredder or blast furnace of life. Just Wow!

The NOS options tend to fit, are of a known quality, and will maintain, not diminish, the value of your prized car.  As with most things, however, it is never quite that simple; benign parts such as trim and lamps are fine in most cases, but some componentry that has rubber parts, such as a fuel pumps, etc, may have perished, and some electrical components may have deteriorated.

All the parts supply issues are compounded by the fact that you cannot go to your local dealer and get the car simply repaired – you have to rely on specialists, further compounding the maintainability problem.

And this is where the problem lies for the US Department of Defence.  The systems they deployed will have been bounded, (frozen), so they will not suffer from issues such as operating system incompatibilities. They will, however, face the constant challenge of parts supply for systems that are probably in excess of 20 years old now, in addition to the skills gap to maintain it.  A 20 year old VAX 6000 is not as easily maintained as its modern HP relative.

I know the military will have dozens of spares “stashed” away, yet if the issue is the floppy disk, then just like the NOS fuel pump, it’s a lottery as to whether it will work effectively.  All this has been considered without even thinking about the actual floppy disk itself.  This is probably based on a metal oxide technology (rust), and therefore if not kept impeccably and re-recorded fairly regularly, it will likely not “read”.

So why is this relevant for the majority of commercial users, who will no doubt feel they don’t suffer the same challenges?  Well it is relevant – because they do!

Whilst most of us may not be worrying that our floppy disc may not read when we’re trying to unleash Armageddon, most organisations do have systems, or groups of systems, that are “stale” – to be polite, or to use the most current vernacular, systems which are very “Mode 1”.

For many companies, these can be cornerstone systems that provide backbone operational applications. I recently worked with a large financial institution that had problems with an application that had been written in COBOL 30 years ago.  The people who had written, patched and “tinkered” with the code were at best long retired.

So the message is to persistently ensure that organisations don’t allow systems to go stale.  Develop a plan that really does maintain currency, in operational terms, going forward.  In many ways, it is easier to manage in a world full of less proprietary systems and many different operational models.

Accordant Solutions are an independent consultancy that will help you develop clarity in those plans. Using AccSL™, our custom-built software solutions library, we can also create business cases to establish the most pressing investment priorities and model the optional outcomes.

Being well prepared, may prevent you from having to scour E-Bay for the next module you need to repair your vital system…