Rejuvenating your legacy system with more robust features is paramount to business success. However, walking the talk remains a delicate topic for some. This is because costs, market uncertainty, and fear of business disruption often take greater precedence in their decision-making.

Yet, their reluctance to make the switch still doesn’t negate the severe disadvantage that legacy systems put businesses through. According to NTT Data, global cybersecurity threats are rising, with 62% of reported incidents in 2020 coming from data-sensitive industries, namely manufacturing, healthcare, and finance.

Relying on a legacy system also hinders companies from truly driving digital transformation. One study has shown at least more than half of the surveyed technology leaders recognize the importance of infrastructure adaptability in fostering business competitiveness.

Given the criticality of a legacy system to business operations, as further explained in our previous post, any major overhaul must be assessed by experts entirely on a case-by-case basis to determine the extent of the required upgrade with as little interference as possible. That said, here are four known security risks associated with using outdated software applications:

Unresolved technical debt

Technical debt occurs when the development team prioritizes faster market delivery at the expense of code quality. This typical compromise is likely observed in more traditional software development, where every phase cascades in a linear motion. As each sprint begins with developing a workable user story, any issues arising after the release are typically deferred to the next phase.

This poses two problems. Firstly, the development team focuses solely on building bare minimum features to pass the QA testing. Secondly, the remaining issues that the team must address in the next phase often fall through the cracks when new objectives arrive. Consequently, any unaddressed bugs in the production environment will eventually entangle the software with layers upon layers of code defects rectifiable only with massive refactoring.

Saddled with compounding programming issues, the legacy system rapidly devolves into a spaghetti architecture where unaccounted assets and tools soon become underutilized or fall into disrepair. Besides slowing down business processes, the sprawling codebase inadvertently creates numerous unsecured gateways far from the company’s purview, through which any unauthorized parties can take the free rein to wreak havoc.

Aging IT infrastructure

Unlike physical IT infrastructure, software doesn’t necessarily experience degradation by itself. However, any reworks, scale-ups, upgrades, and other interactions with the external environments can affect the software performance over time. As a result, software programs designed with older hardware, including mainframes, operating systems, and databases, may undergo recurring downtimes as their infrastructure steadily declines.

This strict dependency on legacy hardware coupled with the extensive use of third-party software resources (e.g., outdated open-source codes, libraries, and frameworks), in turn, creates a welter of security lapses for companies to navigate through.

As software vendors discontinue support for their older products and certain programming languages, skills, and development tools fall out of favor, system upgrades and maintenance for older applications become more complex and expensive. In other words, the legacy software’s continuity has become highly contingent on the availability of its structural support.

We have seen how this overreliance on scarce and obsolete dependencies plays out in real life. For example, the spike in benefit claims at the start of the pandemic had put a massive strain on New Jersey’s proprietary unemployment insurance system, forcing the state governor to seek the dwindling COBOL expertise for help. While many are quick to pin the blame on the decades-old programming language, the absence of proper documentation and failures to anticipate the evolving consumer needs with the existing software capacity were the likeliest culprits of the buckling system.

Evolving cyber threats

Well-designed legacy systems typically have a long-lasting shelf life with functionalities that accommodate multiple mission-critical operations. At the time of their commission, they might even fully adhere to the top-notch cybersecurity protocols available.

But even the best cutting-edge applications cannot compete with the march of time. Modern hackers have built upon years of knowledge to study and exploit system vulnerabilities that might slip under the radar of most companies. The fast-growing threat landscape has rendered many static security protocols obsolete—making legacy applications vulnerable to attacks.

In 2021, the US National Vulnerability Database (NVD) published record-breaking 20,143 vulnerabilities in production code, with medium- and high-level threats making up at least 84% of the data. This worrying trend not only highlights the brewing undercurrents of modern cyberattacks but also makes a convincing case for companies to upgrade their legacy applications whenever the opportunity arises.

System vulnerabilities can increase over time

The boom and bust of a business lifecycle can affect the integrity of a legacy system. The fluctuating market conditions, new legislations, corporate restructuring, mergers, and acquisitions have all influenced how a business calibrates its IT system. Since any adaptations and updates come from different teams throughout the years, the system, thus, quickly falls prey to security loopholes. This becomes even clearer when incremental enhancements are merely tacked on current configurations without proper documentation and audits.

These conflict points will become deeply embedded into the architecture—making it difficult for companies to gain a complete overview of the system and implement additional layers of safeguards.

Notwithstanding its flimsy foundation, a legacy system can continue running and expanding outwards for years without showing any anomalies. That is until a vigorous shake-up exposes the structural vulnerabilities within its cobbled patchwork of disparate frameworks, APIs, and features.

Such a complex yet jumbled architecture built on an outdated security technology—a prominent characteristic of most legacy systems—also lacks the mechanisms to garner enough contextual information to monitor and foil any potential infiltrations in real time.

The breach incidents against the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) from late 2013 to mid-2015 exemplify this innate design flaw. While it remains unclear how the hacker groups gained access to the system on two separate occasions, the OPM had long been criticized for its portal’s woefully convoluted structure and inadequate security practices, which explained the office’s delayed countermeasures against the unauthorized access.

How to address these security risks?

Now that we’ve identified the prevalent security risks in legacy systems, here are several steps you can take to protect your proprietary software:

  1. Conduct thorough risk assessments periodically to identify security gaps throughout your system. Make an inventory of all the existing assets and tools in your application to eliminate any possible stragglers and know when everything on your list is due for maintenance or refurbishment. We have tremendous experience identifying security gaps and fixing them. For our client, the World Trade Centers Association, we implemented security measures that had been recommended by a third-party security company, and that meant changes to the code base of many of WTCA’s applications.
  2. Align your resources and workforce properly to help you act swiftly against any emerging threats in the event of a crisis. Draw up a plan on how your development team can best approach a security incident across multiple scenarios and assign each member to specific tasks ahead of time.
  3. Bolster your system with the latest security access protocols. These safety measures encompass not just end-to-end encryption methods and clear audit trails but also multidimensional accessibility features, such as geo-based logins and two-factor authentication.
  4. While intrusions are more likely to occur due to system vulnerabilities, you can further minimize risks by introducing good cyber hygiene as part of your operational protocols. Make sure that every employee adheres to these administrative safeguards.
  5. Put a decommissioning plan in motion anytime you want to phase out any features or programs that are no longer relevant to your company’s strategic goals.
  6. Know when it’s the best time to modernize or migrate your legacy application. With modernization, you can deliver a better customer experience as it brings enhanced security features and better interface designs. Meanwhile, legacy migration allows you to shift your entire system to a new operating environment, typically from a bulky mainframe database to a scalable cloud platform.

Why modernize and migrate your legacy application?

In the face of stiff market competition and unfettered technological rivalry, legacy modernization and migration emerge as the surefire solutions to help businesses elevate their applications to modern standards.

Nonetheless, this process isn’t a one-off engagement but rather a continuous investment in technology against the ever-evolving threat landscape. With cutting-edge innovations proliferating at an unprecedented scale, spanning from the highly intuitive AI and IoT to diverse cloud-based platforms, software renovation empowers companies to reimagine their future value creation across breadth, complexity, and depth.

Asahi Technologies offers deep expertise in agile methodology, comprehensive development tools, and thorough strategic planning within a highly collaborative environment to help companies unlock myriad business opportunities with the best version of their proprietary applications.

Over the last decade, our dedicated team has helped numerous clients scale their operations and drive digital growth with critical software enhancements.

Looking for a technology partner to assist you with a software upgrade?

Reach out to us with your inquiries to get started!

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