Navigating and Mitigating End of Life Software Risks

Black floppy disk, end of life software

Seemingly every day, we're inundated with software updates. Our computers, phones, televisions, smart devices, and now even our vehicles need to be updated regularly. But what do we do when there are no more updates 

When software goes end of life (EOL) or becomes obsolete, what's the harm of continuing to use it? Do the end of life software risks really outweigh the cost of having to sunset that software, searching for and implementing a new solution, and then training everyone on it? 

Short answer: Yes. 100%. Without a doubt. 

Long answer: Let’s dig in a little.

Understanding the Risks of End of Life Software 

Software forms the backbone of business operations, and many risks associated with using end of life software exist.  

End of Life Software Definition: 

Software is deemed EOL when it has reached the end of its support lifecycle (i.e., it no longer receives updates or support from its developers). This lack of support, especially regarding security patches, opens a Pandora's box of vulnerabilities. 

Heightened Vulnerability to Cyber Threats 

The primary risk of continuing with EOL software is its heightened vulnerability to cyber threats. Without regular updates, these programs become easy targets for cybercriminals. They exploit known vulnerabilities, which remain unpatched in outdated software. 

Security breaches associated with outdated software are frequent and significantly more damaging. These breaches can lead to substantial data loss, theft of sensitive information, and even system-wide compromises that can paralyze an organization's operations. 

Increased Incidence and Cost of Data Breaches 

The use of EOL software escalates not just the likelihood of a data breach but also its potential cost. The cost of rectifying the breach, loss of customer trust, and potential downtime can all add up, leading to financial strains significantly higher than those experienced with up-to-date systems.   

Legal and Compliance Implications 

Many industry regulatory standards mandate that organizations use supported AND updated software. For example, using outdated software in healthcare or financial services can result in non-compliance with industry regulations, leading to hefty fines and legal repercussions. 

Additionally, a growing trend in global legislation holds organizations and their leaders accountable for failing to protect customer data, which directly ties into the software they use. 

Why Does End of Life Software Persist? 

The reasons are many, and they’re important for IT decision-makers to understand. Continuing to use end of life software—despite the risks—often stems from a mix of economic reasoning, communication gaps, and the challenges posed by "Shadow IT." 

Economic Considerations 

Continuing to use EOL software is often seen as a cost-saving measure, particularly in resource-sensitive sectors like healthcare.  

There are direct costs to upgrading—purchasing new licenses, training, and transitioning to the new system. And there are indirect costs, including downtime and the learning curve associated with new software. All of this can add up to reluctance to upgrade. 

Lack of Awareness and Communication Breakdown 

You may not know you’re using EOL software. Sometimes vendors fail to effectively communicate the end of life status to all users, especially in software supply chains where the end-user may be several steps removed from the original vendor. This communication breakdown can lead to businesses unknowingly continuing to use outdated software. 

The Shadow IT Challenge 

Nearly half of all companies allow unmanaged devices to access their resources. These devices often run EOL software, creating a significant security gap. Shadow IT—when employees use software or devices without explicit IT department approval—complicates efforts to phase out EOL software because IT departments may not even be aware of its existence within their networks.  

Proactive Measures for Mitigating Risks of End of Life Software 

Effectively managing the risks associated with end of life software involves a combination of vigilance, proactive planning, and strategic implementation of policies and tools.  

Regular Monitoring of EOL Status 

A cornerstone of managing EOL software is staying informed about the lifecycle status of all software in use.  

Resources like endoflife greatly help when looking into the support timelines of software products. 

This proactive approach allows for timely planning of upgrades or transitions, ensuring that no software component becomes a liability due to outdated security or functionality. 

Effective Communication and Planning 

Open and ongoing communication with software vendors is essential. Technology partners like HBS often provide advance notice about EOL timelines and offer recommendations for migration paths. Planning migrations well before the EOL date can make the transition smoother and less disruptive. 

Equally important is communicating these plans within the organization. Informing all software users about the transition plans, including the reasons behind the change and the expected timelines, ensures everyone is on the same page and minimizes resistance to change. 

Challenges with End-User Devices 

End-user devices often harbor unmonitored or unauthorized software installations. 

Blocking EOL software on these devices is essential but requires a comprehensive approach. Regular audits, user education, and management tools can help identify and control such software. 

A robust approach to mitigating the risks of EOL software involves implementing and enforcing Device Trust policies. These policies ensure that only devices complying with the organization's security standards can access network resources. This includes maintaining up-to-date software and covers other security measures like antivirus protection and regular security audits. By enforcing these policies, organizations can significantly reduce the vulnerabilities of outdated software. 

Conclusion: Turning End of Life Software Risks Into a Future-Proof IT Environment 

In IT, being proactive is not merely about staying ahead regarding technology; it's fundamentally about ensuring security and maintaining compliance as part of a resilient organization. This involves phasing out EOL software and transitioning to supported, secure alternatives. 

You’ll need technical insight, strategic foresight, and the ability to communicate with various organizational stakeholders effectively. 

The allure of cost savings and the inertia of existing systems may tempt organizations to continue using EOL software. However, the risks involved—from heightened cyber threats and legal liabilities to the complexities of software management and internal communication—are too significant to overlook. Addressing these challenges requires a balanced approach that weighs economic realities, enhances vendor communication, and implements robust policies to manage shadow IT. 

By staying informed, planning, communicating effectively, and enforcing comprehensive device policies, IT leaders can not only mitigate the risks posed by outdated software but also pave the way for a secure, efficient, and future-proof IT environment. 

If you have questions about any of your software or would like an environment-wide assessment of your IT hardware and software, please contact HBS today and allow us to help.