Managing Industrial Manufacturing Legacy IT Systems

Sep 14, 2021 | Security, Unsupported Operating Systems

The team at Extreme Networks were recently called upon by one of our Manufacturing customers to fix one of their Legacy IT systems running Windows 98, an unsupported Microsoft Operating System that was failing to boot.  Though advisable, not all businesses, especially in manufacturing, can use supported and patched OS due to various constraints. The team at Extreme Networks have developed a range of techniques to manage these situations.

Luckily for our customer, we were able to repair the system quickly and get their 5 axis CNC mill back in production.  This article will discuss some of the techniques we use to manage support for unsupported operating systems and applications.

What are Legacy IT systems in Manufacturing?

PCs should normally be updated every 5 – 6 years, including both the Hardware and the Operating System.  Hardware sooner or later will fail, especially hard drives, but power systems and motherboards are also susceptible failure.  It is important to keep Operating Systems up to date and eventually Microsoft will drop support for each Operating System.

The range of systems that run legacy systems in manufacturing are:

  • PLC – Programmable Logic Controllers.  These are often key components in SCADA systems.  The PLCs  control and monitor a range of components, including assembly lines and robots.
  • CAD/CAM – Computer Aided Design / Computer Aided Manufacturing.  CAD/CAM is the integration between Designs created in CAD software are manufactured by software controlling devices like lathes, 5 axis CNC milling machines, or 3D printers.  Popular software includes Fusion 360 by Autodesk – although many business run legacy versions of the Autodesk software range, including AutoCAD versions and a wide range of AutoDesk applications.
  • DCS – Distributed Control Systems – similar to SCADA but used when high reliability and security is required.
  • SCADA – Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition.  One of the most common industrial control systems.  SCADA has a range of security issues and is often develop and run in without internet connections to decrease the security risk.

Why not upgrade legacy Operating Systems?

There are a number of reasons why systems are not upgradable.

  1. Software not supported in later Operating Systems.  Some companies go out of business and therefore the software is no longer maintained, or the product is no longer supported.  We have seen machines worth more than $100,000 that no longer receive software updates, even though they continue to function.  Equipment manufacturers use this as a technique to drive upgrade sales and decrease the amount of equipment sold on the second hand market.
  2. Software requiring specific hardware components.   Legacy applications may require boutique hardware components like Comm ports or dongles / hardware keys.  The Comm ports haven’t been in use for many years and whilst add on cards may be available, sometimes they do not function correctly on modern operating systems.  Dongles are electronic devices that are plugged into a machine to validate that the software hasn’t been pirated.  They were quite popular, however they could be quite temperamental and hence they have fallen out of popularity.
  3. The cost of upgrading software. Many very expensive machines are operated by software that is not the main focus of the companies that manufacture the machines.  This means that the software is often not updated as frequently as it should be.  Also software updates are a part of maintenance contracts, which can be very expensive.  Manufacturers often use the software updates as a means of driving support contracts.
  4. The equipment manufacturer has gone out of business.  When the manufacture closes down, software support ceases and equipment that is working perfectly well is left with software that will no longer be maintained and upgraded.

Whilst in theory all software should be maintained with a valid support contract, these reasons mean that often equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars have software that is not upgraded as it should be.  With the costs pressures on the manufacturing industry, there are often very good reasons why it isn’t economically viable to upgrade or replace equipment and therefore maintain unsupported software is of critical importance.  Sometimes

How to manage legacy Operating Systems

Extreme Networks specialises in managing legacy computer systems for many manufacturing businesses.  We have developed a range of techniques to manage unsupported Operating Systems and applications.

  1. Disconnect the machine from the Internet.  This is THE most important step to take to manage legacy Operating Systems.  The Internet is a lot more hostile than when these Operating Systems were developed and supported and these machines can be compromised quite easily.
  2. Manage the hardware.    Sooner or later components in machine will fail.  Most common are hard drives and power supplies, but it is not uncommon for a motherboard or other subsystem to fail.
  3. Back up the machine.  If the hard drive does fail, it is critical to be able to get the computer running again.  This often involves using legacy back up systems.
  4. Ensure legacy device support is a part of the business continuity plan.  For some of the high value legacy systems, we have dedicated replacement systems pre built or a business continuity plan that is regularly tested, to ensure the business has minimal downtime should the machine fail.
  5. Virtualisation.   Some Operating Systems and applications can be made to work in a virtual environment. Microsoft Hyper V can work, but we have had a lot of success with VirtualBox.
  6. Spare parts.  For many systems, replacement parts are no longer made and available.  Second hand computers often offer a good source of parts, but as the age of the device increases, it can be increasingly difficult to find the required parts, which is why some businesses maintain a stock of legacy computers for spare parts.

Support for Windows 98

Despite official Microsoft Support for Windows 98 ending in July, 2006, there is still a large number of PCs running Windows 98.  This is the oldest Operating System that we manage.  It has been many years since we’ve seen Windows 95 and many years before that for Windows NT.   Windows 98 was revolutionary in it’s advanced support for device management.  Device Management is a critical component for managing unsupported devices.  Windows 98 today is often difficult to find replacement parts for and hence some of our customers stockpile legacy PC components ensuring a supply of parts for the computers.

Supports for Windows 2000

There are less Windows 2000 machines.  The device management was less flexible than Windows 98 and it was designed as a business system – however most machines on the factory floor were sold with Windows 98 because of device management.

Unsupported Operating Systems

This Windows 98 System is unsupported by Microsoft and is likely to be over 20 years old, however can’t be upgraded because of the legacy software that it runs. Extreme Networks has developed a series of options and processes to support unsupported machines and operating systems.

Support for Windows XP

There are a lot of Windows XP machines still working, especially Windows XP Embedded (XPe).  Windows XPe was designed to run headless (without a monitor) and to be used in devices like kiosks, ATMs, cash registers and industrial robotic systems.  Windows XP is a much more robust Operating System and lot easier to virtualise, ensuring easier management of PCs.  If there is no requirement for legacy hardware, these machines can be ported to new hardware with virtualised XP machines.

Support for Windows Vista

We downgraded all of the PCs we shipped back to Windows XP because Windows Vista was such a troubled Operating System.  We have not seen Windows Vista in the wild for many years.  It was an awful Operating System and it is not surprising that no one is any longer using it.

Support for Windows 7, 8 and 8.1

Windows 7 was a rock solid Operating System, however we are seeing less unsupported machines running Windows 7, because the upgrade to Windows 8 and later are relatively uncomplicated to perform.  Most applications that run on Windows 7 can run on later software.  Device management was a lot more robust and upgradable.  Windows 7 support ended in January, 2020, and Windows 8 actually ending in 2016, although Windows 8.1 support ends in 2023.  Most legacy systems are now running on current hardware within virtualised Operating Systems.

Old Hard Drive Connector

Part of the challenge of supporting unsupported computers and applications is that the hardware standards have changed a lot since they were introduced. This device allows for the connecting and reading of aged hard drives – ensuring that data can be extracted from these hard drives.

One of the issues with repairing and maintaining legacy devices is that hardware connectors can have changed over time.  The Team at Extreme Networks has a wide range of legacy devices to ensure wecan access data from a range of devices, in particular hard drives and the various types of connectors that have been used over the last 20 years.

Lagacy IT systems for manufacturing

They don’t make them like they used to. Here is a Maxtor from 1998. The system failed but the Hard Drive is still running. Having a contingency plan for failing hardware, especially when connected to PLC equipment, CAD/CAM software, CNC milling machines, or 5 axis DMUs.

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