Software obsolescence: the underestimated risk

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Nothing is possible without software. And like hardware, software is changing all the time. These changes can soon pose a threat to companies.

If a washing machine breaks down shortly after the guarantee has expired, this could be a result of so-called planned obsolescence. Even if there is no scientific proof for this. If however the manufacturers of long-lasting goods realize that components for their product are no longer available, then obsolescence is completely unplanned. This could be because component manufacturers adapt the life cycles of their products to the fast-moving world of consumer electronics. The “Obsolescence Day” organized by the electronica 2016 and the COG Component Obsolescence Group Deutschland showed how important this issue is nowadays.

The EU Parliament too believes that action needs to be taken. Last week, it passed a resolution demanding a “longer operating life for products”. The resolution focuses not only on hardware but also on software. Although the EU is mainly thinking about consumers, companies face very similar problems when it comes to software. And the consequences here can take on entirely different dimensions.

Software obsolescence “destroys” hardware

One might ask how software could become obsolete. It does not wear out and it can theoretically be duplicated an unlimited number of times. There are three main reasons why software obsolescence is nevertheless becoming an increasingly common problem:

  1. The manufacturer no longer provides the necessary software patches, e.g. to rectify a security flaw.
  2. The software can no longer be operated because licenses, certificates, interfaces etc. are no longer available.
  3. The platforms needed for operation are no longer available.

In many cases, these problems render the hardware too unusable. For example if a security flaw is found in a router’s software only years later. And the software manufacturer is unable to rectify the problem because the software development environment is no longer available. As a result, the router becomes unusable for security reasons.

If a manufacturer of machine control systems uses the “small” version of a well-known operating system for a non-connected machine and a new software license for a replacement module is needed because the processor module breaks down, this can be even more costly. What happens if the operating system manufacturer refuses to provide this license because the operating system was discontinued years ago? The machine control system manufacturer then has no alternative but to switch to a newer operating system which will also mean comprehensively redesigning its own hardware. Cases like these often result in significant extra costs.

Shorter innovation cycles – greater obsolescence

In an industrial setting, the obsolescence of software can very quickly lead to massive problems, especially if devices or systems need to function reliably for many years. In light of increasing connectivity, digitization and Industry 4.0, the risk of software obsolescence could increase even further, not least owing to the greater IT security risks that result. The experience gained in the electronics industry where shorter innovation cycles lead to greater obsolescence applies to software too.

How can this risk be eliminated completely or at least minimized? Standardized procedures for software modifications or discontinuations as described in the new VDMA 24903 document would be an important first step. Internal company obsolescence management strategies and legal measures to regulate the availability of licenses are also needed. Associations such as COG Component Obsolescence Group Deutschland e.V. play an important role here. Essentially, however, the software manufacturers and users must be made much more aware of the risks posed by software obsolescence in an industrial context.

Dr. Wolfgang Heinbach, Chairman of COG Component Obsolescence Group Deutschland e.V. (Image: OCG).

Dr. Wolfgang Heinbach, Chairman of COG Component Obsolescence Group Deutschland e.V. (Image: COG).