In defense of the Orly IT Team

Dans la catégorie: Geekeries — kwyxz le 13/11/15 à 20:19

Un article en anglais, parce que publié initialement sur Facebook, mais je me suis dit que ça ne ferait pas de mal de le reproduire ici.

The story of the Orly Airport glitch is now trending on Facebook, I already addressed it on Twitter yesterday but feel like I could spend a few minutes talking about it as well here. As some of you may know, a glitch in the weather monitoring system grounded planes for a while and it became a big story because, as reported by newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné, the system is running Windows 3.1, an OS that came out in 1992. Hence, news media around the world are now jokingly writing about it. Ha-ha! Windows 3.1! Ha-ha!

I love Le Canard Enchaîné. They possibly are the very last newspaper in France to actively do investigative journalism. They are immensely respected in the french media, and their articles are most often quoted by every other news outlet without any question. The problem is, I’ve come to realize that every time they write about IT they sadly don’t know what they’re talking about. Disclosure: I have not read the original article from Le Canard yet, as it is not available on the Internet. Hopefully I’ll be able to read it when I visit France in a few weeks. But I’ve seen the resulting articles (Le Monde for example, or Vice for an english version)

Yes, having to maintain such an old system is painful and problematic, but the main issue here has absolutely nothing to do with the software. Why would anything that’s been running perfectly fine until now suddenly be a problem because of one glitch? It is the first major issue in the system in TWENTY-THREE YEARS. There’s this old saying in the tech industry, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The legitimacy of that quote might be debatable, but that’s not even the point here. Software, unlike hardware, does not age, and does not start underperforming when it’s old.

I’ve heard security questions : isn’t it dangerous to still run an old and unsupported OS? Well if you were to try to browse the Internet with it, yeah, it would. But in the case of Orly, it’s a closed system, that doesn’t communicate with anything it wasn’t designed to. A system that nobody from “the outside” is supposed to have access to either, and that was never broken into in 23 years. Moreover, the more complex an OS, the more security flaws : running a more modern version of Windows would most certainly not help in that retrospect.

So why are they keeping such a system running? Two words: technical debt. When it was designed, that system had to interface with hardware that, at the time, most probably had drivers only for Windows. I’m thinking about this kind of hardware, for example.

We’re talking 1992, when Linux was not even version 1.0, when POSIX (a set of standards for Unix systems) was still at its beginnings. Yeah, OS/2 was possibly considered, but again, drivers? And legacy-speaking, it turns out OS/2 would not have been the wisest choice. So a system was designed, it interfaced with all these gadgets, and was running Windows 3.1. When Windows NT first came out, its lack of compatibility with third-party hardware was a big issue. Then Windows 95 came out, and it’s possibly been evaluated as a replacement, but broke a lot of hardware compatibility too. And the subsequent versions kept breaking things, so they stuck to 3.1 as replacing everything would have had a huge cost and they were probably still recovering from the costs of the 1992 initial setup. Would any of the people currently laughing have preferred the system to run Windows ME? Hey, it’s only 15 years old, that’s better than 23, right?

Of course, as the years go by the problems are more and more complicated to tackle, but they’re mostly hardware. How do you deal with a dead ISA port nowadays? Virtualization is a solution but it can’t help in a lot of cases, especially when you’re in need of such hardware-tight integration. The system itself is probably only compatible with 3.1. Upgrading Windows will most probably mean start over from zero, and not just with the OS and computers, but also with a ton of other equipments that would be completely unable to interact with the system. Replacing maybe not everything, but already way too many things. And of course this is expensive. Guess what would pay for it? Taxes. Who want taxes be used to fix something that ain’t broken? Nobody.

Once again, I would like everyone who’s been laughing to consider this : is anything that’s been running with no major issue for 23 years such a joke? How many things can you think about have been running fine for so long? Consider why so many companies are stuck with Internet Explorer 6 because of business software that will not work with anything else. Why a lot of ticket-vending terminals around the world are still running OS/2. Think about the Paris Metro line 14 that is using computers running 68020 processors (from 1983). Think about nuclear power plants using VAX/VMS (machines designed in the 70s!) in some of their core components. Would you feel safer if they were running Windows 10?

I know I wouldn’t.

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