The backward compatibility conundrum

In software systems, backward compatibility is a blessing and a curse. While backward compatibility discharges users from mandatory software updates, it is also an excuse to ignore maintenance. For software vendors, omitting backward compatibility is a means to get users to buy new stuff; “enjoy our latest innovations!”.

1980s software on 64-bit hardware

DS Backward compatilibility
DS Backward compatibility

You can not run Windows 95 software on Windows 11.

You can not Run MacOS X software on a PowerBook G4 from 2006.

You can not use Java version 5 software on a Java 11 runtime.

You can, however, run mainframe software compiled in 1980 for 16-bit hardware on the latest z/OS 64-bit operating system and the latest IBM Z hardware. This compatibility is one of the reasons for the success of the IBM mainframe.

Backward compatibility in software has significant benefits. The most significant benefit is that you do not need to change applications with technology upgrades. This saves large amounts of effort and, thus, money for changes that bring no business benefit.

The dangers of backward compatibility

Backward compatibility also has very significant drawbacks:

  • Because you do not need to fix software for technology upgrades, backward compatibility leads to laziness in maintenance. Just because it keeps running, the whole existence of the software is lost out of sight. Development teams lose the knowledge of the functionality and sometimes even the supporting business processes. Minor changes may be made haphazardly, leading to slowly increasing code complexity. Horrific additions are made to applications, using tools like screen scraping, leading to further complexity of the IT landscape. Then, significant changes are suddenly necessary, and you are in big trouble.
  • Backward compatibility hinders innovation. Not only can you not take advantage of modern hardware capabilities, but you also get stuck with programming and interfacing paradigms of the past. You can not exploit functionality trapped inside old programs, and it is tough to integrate through modern technologies like REST APIs.

The problem may be even more significant. Because you do not touch your code, other issues may appear.

Over the years, you will change from source code management tools. During these transitions, code can get lost, or insight into the correct versions of programs gets lost.

Also, compilers are upgraded all the time. And the specifications of the programming languages may change. Consequently, the code you have, which belongs to the programs running in your production environment, can not be compiled any longer. When changes are necessary, your code suddenly needs to catch up with all these changes. And that will make the change a lot riskier.

How to avoid backward compatibility complacency?

Establish a policy to recompile, test, and deploy programs every 2 or 3 years, even if the code needs no functional change. Prevent a pile of technical debt.

Is that a lot of work? It does not need to be. You could automate most, if not all, of the compilation and testing process. If nothing functionally changes, modern test tools can help support this process. With these tools, you can automate running tests, compare results with the expected output, and pinpoint issues.

This process also has a benefit: your recompiled code will run faster because it can use the latest hardware features. You can save money if your software bill is based on CPU consumption.

Don’t let backward compatibility make you backward.

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