Really old computer stuff: The business (and certification?) of legacy tech

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Legacy is (still) out there. Can you make it work?In my work as an IT consultant, I see many client network environments. I’m always surprised (although I really shouldn’t be) at how much Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 I see in production. You may or may not be aware that Windows XP reached its official end of support on April 8, 2014, and that Windows Server 2003 reached its end of life on July 14, 2015.

Why should you care about running Microsoft Windows operating systems beyond their end-of-life dates? Simply this: Microsoft won’t support you, period. Moreover, Windows Updates don’t apply to legacy Windows versions, so these systems get increasingly vulnerable to malware and other malicious attacks the longer they exist in production.

What is ‘legacy’ technology?

Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 are examples of legacy technology. The term “legacy” is a euphemism for any computer hardware or software that is old and likely no longer supported by its manufacturer.

Whereas the general trend in the consumer space is the constant race to stay “up-to-the-moment” with technology gadgets, it’s typically a different world in enterprise IT. Systems administrators and those who hold the IT department’s purse strings want to stretch every dollar of value from those expensive line-of-business systems.

To be sure, the age-old notion of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a pretty popular mantra in many IT departments. Ironically, the DevOps movement that’s the current rage in many cases forces IT departments to move beyond legacy tech to meet “continuous integration” product development milestones and 24/7/365 availability.

The big data breaches we see nowadays can often be traced to legacy systems that aren’t as rigorously patched as current-generation systems. But for businesses (think big banks) whose line-of-business systems are so entrenched and seemingly intractable, upgrade seems like a remote but undeniably necessary proposition.

Enough scary stuff for now. Let’s consider some legacy technologies that still have legitimate relevance today.

C, FORTRAN, and COBOL

The bottom line is that, even today, with the Internet of Things (IoT), super high-speed wireless networks, and hyper-connected systems, many businesses still rely upon ancient mainframe computers to perform their work.

I technically shouldn’t say “ancient,” because vendors like IBM still make mainframe computers. The programs that run on mainframes are almost always written in one of three of the oldest programming languages: C, FORTRAN, or COBOL.

Thus, you could feasibly make a nice consulting niche, or even a full-time career, developing your skills with these languages and working for companies still reliant upon legacy mainframe technology.

Analog Telecommunications

Do you remember connecting to your lightning-fast 33 Kbps Internet connection via an analog dial-up modem? Good times — not. But consider that many industries rely upon Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems every day.

SCADA refers to monitoring systems that are deployed to difficult-to-reach areas. For instance, a water treatment plant might install SCADA monitoring systems to detect chemical levels. Because ethernet connectivity may be practically out of reach, oftentimes SCADA involves good ol’ fashioned analog dial-up connectivity because, after all, telephone jacks are ubiquitous.

Once again, a potentially lucrative and satisfying career may be had in working with SCADA technology within a single industry or across several industries.

I suppose we could also put in a plug for pay phones. Yes, they still exist, they still break, and therefore require maintenance from skilled technicians.

Dot-Matrix Printers

I always get a kick when I bring my car to the dealer for routine maintenance because I always hear the familiar chatter of legacy dot-matrix printers doing their work. It wasn’t that many years ago that dot-matrix was the only printer technology within the budget of consumers and even small business owners.

Because there remains market need, you can still purchase dot-matrix printers brand new; Epson and Okidata remain the market leaders, much as they did in the early 1990s.

As far as job prospects are concerned, it’s an open field for you. Any business worth its salt has several printers that require maintenance, and certain businesses couldn’t do what they do (at least not as inexpensively) without trusty dot-matrix printers online and available.

Security Hardware

I did work for a client lately whose data center looked as modern as any you’ll see at a current-generation, tech-literate company. However, their campus security system was shockingly old. I’m not kidding — we’re talking creaky old CRT monitors, VHS videocassette recorders, and old, blurry analog video cameras.

When I asked the client how they felt about their legacy security system, their reply was, “It’s always worked fine for us.” Well, once again we’re confronted with the familiar refrain: for every piece of legacy hardware in use in industry, the need exists for someone who has skills in how to maintain said hardware.

Certification on Legacy Technologies

Legacy is (still) out there. Can you make it work?Okay — so you’ve identified a market need for supporting legacy technology. How exactly does one get certified in legacy tech maintenance? Well, it’s not that simple.

For broadest coverage, I’d suggest the CompTIA A+ and Network+ certifications for you. CompTIA is a non-profit IT industry consortium who develops several vendor-neutral technology certifications, with A+ and Network+ being the most popular.

Although CompTIA has tweaked the content blueprints for these exams lately to remove more legacy tech, quite a bit still exists simply because it reflects what’s happening in the real world.

The A+ credential validates your skills in computer hardware and software support. The Network+ certification verifies your abilities in general networking technologies and support. Taken together, they represent an excellent cross-section of technologies used in modern business, including much legacy hardware and software.

From the mainframe computing front, IBM has a professional certification program that centers on their z System mainframe hosts and operating systems.

With respect to printers, whether dot-matrix, impact, or whatnot, your best bet is to look to the manufacturers to see what they offer, certification-wise. For example, Canon, Lexmark, Dell are three vendors among many who offer service and support credentialing. However, you’ll in most cases need to work for a vendor-authorized repair shop in order to qualify to take the certification exams.

CompTIA formerly offered a Printing and Document Imaging (PDI+) certification, but they retired it on January 31, 2014. The reason I bring it up is that you can still find cert-prep materials that contain good knowledge and learning opportunities.

A simple search with your favorite search engine will unearth plenty of training to help you get up to speed with legacy programming languages: C, FORTRAN, PASCAL, COBOL, JCL, and so forth.

Wrap-up

I hope I conveyed the fact that legacy technology will always be around to some extent or another. To review, the reasons include (a) resistance to change, especially a solution that presently works; (b) belief an upgrade presents a step backward instead of forward; and (c) lack of funds and/or human capital to perform the upgrade.

In sum, I suggest that you not only keep your skills with legacy technology sharp, but also develop a specialty with information security, because shops with legacy tech are generally much more vulnerable to attack than those with modern solutions.

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Timothy Warner

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Timothy L. Warner is an IT professional and technical trainer based in Nashville, Tenn. A computer enthusiast who authored his first BASIC program in 1981 on the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model III, Tim has worked in nearly every facet of IT, from systems administration and software architecture to technical writing and training. He can be reached via LinkedIn.

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