Modernization Is About More Than Cybersecurity

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the entire world began to shut down, the U.S. saw unemployment claims skyrocket. Even states whose unemployment systems adequately handled the influx of users experiences problems, but New Jersey made the news with it’s 1600% increase in applications which caused a massive problem with their systems. The problem wasn’t that the code was bad, even though the state’s unemployment insurance system is run on COBOL. The problem was that there was no one to fix it, adjust it for the scale of the problem and make sure it didn’t completely explode under the pressure. It’s a perfect example of why modernization is about more than cybersecurity.

COBOL is a mainframe era programming language developed in the 1950s and used into the 1970s. It’s a clumsy language, although efficient for what it does. COBOL is meant to do long business processes, it’s not meant to be a language that you can read and necessarily instantly understand what is happening. It’s old, arcane even. And the people who know how to use it, to fix it, patch it and maintain it, are equally as aged and likely retired. Which is where New Jersey ran into a problem. They needed a COBOL coder and literally had to put out an APB to find someone to help them.

The New Jersey fiasco is a prime example of why modernization is so important. Yes, one of the benefits of modernization is being able to move your business to the cloud, to make it more secure from hackers and data thieves. But modernization is about more than cybersecurity and cloud migration. It also means that someone in-house knows the language the systems are written in, they know how to fix problems, patch weaknesses and do regular maintenance to keep it modern. Without regular maintenance, systems become fragile, leading to failures at the worst possible times like in the middle of a pandemic.

Modernization also gives businesses an opportunity to re-evaluate systems and processes for scale. Plan for the worst and hope for the best, as the saying goes. No one could have predicted than over half a million people in New Jersey would apply for unemployment at the same time, but had their systems been modernized and maintained for scale, they may not have had a dam blocking most of their applicants.

Let’s say your systems are running on an old language like COBOL or something similar and you keep having outages, but the system comes back so you assume it always will. You don’t want to change it because it’s expensive and time consuming. The problem with this thought process is that when that system breaks (because it will), it’s not just going to break. It’s going to explode, erupt like a volcano that’s been idle for thousands of years. Your business will be shut down for days while your team attempts to fix the problem. Now you’re out customers, you’re out labor costs, you’re out sales, and your reputation is marred. The cost of NOT modernizing is now apocalyptic.

The other problem with waiting to modernize is that systems tend to break (or explode) at the most inopportune times. In the middle of an upgrade. In the middle of an app release. During a product launch. While you’re doing a presentation for a prospective, large client. It’s Murphy’s Law. And there’s no bailout, there’s no government help, no fund that’s going to show up and save your business. It’s all on you. This is why it’s important to remember that modernization is about more than cybersecurity and cloud migration.

So what is the best way to modernize when you’re using such an old programming language? Most companies won’t like this answer, but you need to scrap the old system and rebuild it using a new language. It’s a complete overhaul, which is what your systems need if they’re running on something that’s breaking down all the time, giving off warning signs that it’s not going to last much longer.

To start the process, you first need to ask yourself what the system was designed for, and is that what you still need it to do. Look at what works, what you don’t like, what could be improved. Gather your engineering and security teams together and get their opinions. Maybe your business has grown to the point where hackers now notice you. You’re no longer a random target in their guessing game, but an actual business that they are trying to break into. Maybe someone doesn’t like your business model, or they hear a rumor (whether true or not) that goes against their beliefs. Groups will begin to target you. Once there targeting you, stopping them can be nearly impossible without using an old language that’s not modern and creates fragility.

The bottom line is that when you’re working with an aging language and aging systems, the best way to modernize it is to throw it out. Build something new that can do what you need it to do in a more efficient, more automated and cost effective fashion. Build it so that it can scale, it can grow with your business. As stated above, plan for the worst but hope for the best. Modernizing now is the best way to protect your business, because in another 5 or 10 years, the languages will have adapted again. It’s an ongoing process and it’s not going anywhere. Better to fix it now than wait for the explosion that ends your business altogether.

Modernization is about more than cybersecurity. The next time one of your employees brings up the need to modernize, listen. They know your systems and processes because they work with them every day. Keeping your systems and processes modern doesn’t just keep them secure, it also ensures proper maintenance and keeps costs down.

About the Author

Pieter VanIperen, Managing Partner of PWV Consultants, leads a boutique group of industry leaders and influencers from the digital tech, security and design industries that acts as trusted technical partners for many Fortune 500 companies, high-visibility startups, universities, defense agencies, and NGOs. He is a 20-year software engineering veteran, who founded or co-founder several companies. He acts as a trusted advisor and mentor to numerous early stage startups, and has held the titles of software and software security executive, consultant and professor. His expert consulting and advisory work spans several industries in finance, media, medical tech, and defense contracting. Has also authored the highly influential precursor HAZL (jADE) programming language.

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