Interview: Maintaining Legacy Software (Part 2)

If you would like to read the first part in this article series please go to Interview: Maintaining Legacy Software (Part 1).

In my previous article here on WindowsNetworking.com I began interviewing Michael L. Hallsted about his experiences maintaining legacy software for the small manufacturing company he still does part-time work for. This present article concludes the interview and covers subjects like ensuring security when using legacy software, finding compatible hardware, and resolving problems that can arise.

The Interview (Part 2)

MITCH: What about security for legacy products like NetWare? How do you ensure your NetWare-based network is secure against outside threats (e.g. attacks over the Internet) and inside vulnerabilities (e.g. through malware installed via using an infected flash drive)?

Michael: The key to this is user education, having a good anti-malware product installed on any workstation that connects to the internet, and not using Microsoft based products for anything that is remotely internet related. When I was at the company full-time, I spent a lot of time patiently explaining technology and email issues, don’t do this, don’t do that, what spam is, what a virus is, and to actively think about actions you take on a computer, like hovering your mouse over a link in an email to determine the actual web address, then actively thinking if that web address is even remotely related to the content of the email and who they thought sent the email. This one-on-one support takes a lot of time, but is so worth it in the end. I have never worried, per se, about the NetWare server. For the longest time, it ran only ipx/spx. But that point is moot, since if a workstation gets infected, it will have access to the server. So you just make sure that users’ home folders are secure and that the proper permissions are in place.

MITCH: I’m curious about your use of Windows 95 for the computer running bar code peripherals in your shop. What would you do if one of these computers died? I still have Win95 installation media kicking around in the form of cab files from an old CD and I’ve been meaning to use them to install Win95 on a spare system to copy some business files from an old Iomega Zip drive disk I found recently while cleaning out my office. Unfortunately the only spare computers I have around are newer systems that don’t have an IEEE 1284 parallel port which is the only interface on the old Zip drive I found in my garage. Might you face a similar dilemma finding a new computer that can interface with your bar code reader?

Michael: I might face a similar dilemma, but I realized a long time ago not to throw away anything! I have 2 spare offices that are stacked high with old technology of every form: PCI and AGP video cards, ISA Sound blasters, Serial modems, AT and PS/2 keyboards and mice, boxes of floppy drives and plain ol’ CD-ROM drives, cables, connecters, older power supplies [both AT and ATX], and all of the older computers that they originally belonged in. It was something we just had to do if we wanted to make life easier for us. I’ve squirreled it all away and they’ll have to pry it out of my cold dead hands if they ever want to clean house.

MITCH: Let’s move on to a few more general questions. What are some examples of the kinds of problems you’ve had to face supporting legacy software and describe how you resolved these problems.

Michael: Well, the main problem we had, over the years, is dealing with the newer Microsoft Office formats, since our workstations have either Office97 or Office 2000 on them. This is easy enough to deal with though. If you look at and examine all of the MS word and excel documents you receive [for us anyway], they are all pretty basic, nothing fancy, nothing complicated. Realistically, the majority of the world could still use Office95 and the office documents we receive would not change. Microsoft has provided viewers for the newer formats, if all you need to do is read or print the newer document. If someone needs to edit one of these newer documents, you just install the Open Office Suite, open the offending document and re-save it in a format that is useable. My new main problem was figuring out how to use a more modern operating system with MRP software that installs 16-bit database drivers and needs ipx/spx to talk to the database. It turns out that installing everything in a virtual machine configured with a bridged network adapter (so the VM has direct access to the network) works just fine. I have tested this with both a 64-bit win7 pro computer and on the company iMac running Snow Leopard. I used w2k as the guest OS in VirtualBox with ipx/spx as the main protocol (tcp/ip is also installed, but listed second), and performance has been good, both the perceived performance of using the MRP software and the actual throughput, which has been surprising good. The only oddity with this setup is the wireless network card versus wired. The main network interface for both the iMac and the win7 computer is wireless. The VM on both computers could see and attach to the Netware server without issues, but connecting to the MRP database caused errors. However, if you plug in a wired network cable, and set the VM to bridge the wired connection, there are no issues and connecting to the MRP database and using the MRP software works as one would expect. Go figure that one.

Another problem we’ve faced concerns printing from the win95 computers. For some odd reason, companies, nowadays, don’t include printer drivers for win95 (lol). Fortunately, this is not a real problem. On a new workstation that is supported by the printer drivers and software, I create 2 new instances of the printer I need to use. I then “Share” those printers and change the driver used, one to HPLJIII, and the other to HPLJ4, and I rename them appropriately, something like HPLJ3win95, and HPLJ4win95. Back on my win95 computer, I can then choose one of these shared printers and set it up as the default printer in win95, and I never have any issues printing to one of these shared printers from my win95 computer. The printers we have are all network-attached,

I also have some advice for anyone still using Windows XP: get Windows XP Service Pack 4 Unofficial 3.1a from http://www.majorgeeks.com/files/details/windows_xp_service_pack_4_unofficial.html. It is a cumulative update rollup for Windows XP (x86) English as well as security enhancements not addressed by Microsoft. This is a valuable piece of software, works as advertised, and really helps any WinXP computer that one might have. Also, MajorGeeks is my go-to site for software and support. They have been around forever, have remained true to their core beliefs, and have an active forum for getting one’s questions answered in a useful way. Not that I contribute all that much, but any post from the user ‘harmless’ would be me.

MITCH: What do you recommend as some best practices for maintaining legacy or out-of-lifecycle software?

Michael: Planning and diligence! Redundancy and backups! Legacy software… you still have the original installation disks, right? And you have multiple copies of those disks, right? And does it need legacy hardware? You have to have spares of everything, otherwise you end up trolling through eBay and craigslist, or visiting local thrift stores praying that you can find what you need.

MITCH: If you had a friend who was in IT and who just got hired by a company that has business-critical legacy software that’s too expensive to upgrade, what kind of advice would you give to your friend before he starts his new job?

Michael: Have multiple backups and don’t let them throw anything away! But if your superiors want you to clean house, then find some abandoned office and squirrel away anything that you deem is necessary to maintain the legacy systems. Basically, you are trying to make your life easier years down the road.

MITCH: How about if we finish off by asking you to share a bit of your own background in IT? And do you have an iPhone or do you still use an old Noika-branded clamshell cellphone? <grin>

Michael: Does the Jitterbug cellphone qualify? For the longest time, I had a Jitterbug, just for emergencies since pay phones have gone the way of the Dodo bird. At the time, I was also interested in convincing my seventy year old mom that having a cell phone was a good idea. You know, a basic phone, big buttons, easy to use, but I wanted to make sure that it was the real deal, and not a nightmare to actually use. So I went looking for reviews, and the only discussion I found, concerning the Jitterbug, was at the Slashdot website. So I steeled myself to slog through the hundreds of comments expecting a “lively” discussion about the virtues and merits of the Jitterbug, and to my surprise, no one said anything bad about it. Granted, no one also said that the Jitterbug was the must have, end all phone of the future. For the most part, comments were neutral, summary was decent phone with decent service. Good enough for me, Slashdot recommended, so I got one, and my mom liked it enough to get one for herself. Currently though, I have a hand me down iPhone 3GS. My mom still has her Jitterbug.

My background? Well… college, late 1970’s, Fortran programming class using punch cards… why study when you can write letters to home using the punch cards. The English equivalent to the holes punched were printed at the top of the card. The only problem was postage, so I had to keep each letter to around 20 or 30 cards. I wish we still had them. Anyway, after graduating from college in 1981, I went into accounting and bookkeeping. My first job was as a bookkeeper at a local CPA firm. They had a mini Wang computer that used 8-inch floppy disks as their storage. When there was a change to the accounting software, the guy who wrote it would give us a call and I would sit at the terminal and type in the changes he made, and then save the changes to the floppy disk that had the accounting software on it. Those were the days. My one big IT contribution to that CPA firm was convincing them that using a pencil to label the disks was a bad idea and was the reason why some of the floppy disks were failing.

Bookkeeping is fine but won’t make you rich. So when the late 1990’s hit with an exploding need for IT professionals, I jumped on the band wagon, went back to school and got my AA in networking technologies from Heald College. Then I got me some Novell certifications, Apple certifications, Linux certifications, and all of the CompTIA certifications they offered at that time. I did not pursue any Microsoft certifications because at Heald, you took classes in both NT4 server and Netware v4. NT4 server was horrible to setup and configure, compared to Netware v4, and I thought who would ever do that to themselves, use NT4 server, so I skipped MS certification. After graduating from Heald, I got my one and only IT job at Johnson Farm Machinery. Full time for the first three years, then part time, one day a week since then. I would have pursued another full time position in IT, but I was almost 45 years old, and the one IT recruiter who actually bothered to talk to me, said that my knowledge was outdated and my experience was all wrong. Great, oh well, if I was in my twenties, dealing with the constant grind and change of technology would not have been a problem, but at 45 yrs old, the drive and energy to chase the moving IT target just was not there, so back to bookkeeping Monday thru Friday! At times, the consistency is very comforting.

MITCH: Michael thanks for sharing your expertise with us.

Michael: You’re very welcome!

If you would like to read the first part in this article series please go to Interview: Maintaining Legacy Software (Part 1).

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