If it ain't broke, break it: Why putting off software upgrades can make things worse

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is an obsolete practice for technology. Here's why we need to make "upgrade, no matter what" our new mantra.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
broadband studio

David's Broadband Studio

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," has been an aphorism that's been with us for a very long time. In many ways, it's been a guiding principle for me and many other tech folks. However, I'm starting to think that, at least when it comes to computers, we're going to need to retire the practice entirely.

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I'll illustrate this with an example. Many of you have followed along with my Broadband Studio project. Because I do so many webcasts, on-air interviews, and broadcasts, I built a studio into a 10x9 foot room.

At the core of that studio is a Mac mini that runs some very precisely configured software. This software handles the audio routing, the green screen chroma key, the lower thirds, and more. It's managed by very carefully constructed scripts. I augment the system with two iPads, one driving a teleprompter, and one that acts as a custom keypad to the broadcast software.

It's tight. It works perfectly. But it's running on OS X Mountain Lion.

Mountain Lion was the ninth major version of OS X. It was released to manufacturing by Apple just about four years ago.

About 18 months later, Mavericks was released. I chose to stick with Mountain Lion because Mavericks had such a rough start. Given the need for all the elements in my studio to work together seamlessly, I decided to keep my Mac mini on Mountain Lion because everything actually did work together.

I figured, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

That strategy stood me in good stead until yesterday. I make a good chunk of my living doing webcasts, so the webcast infrastructure is mission critical.

Yesterday, when I went into the studio to record a webcast, everything broke.

Here's what happened

Last week, Google released Chrome 50, which dropped support for older OS versions. While the marquee OS to lose support was Windows XP, Mountain Lion was also dropped. Mountain Lion would no longer get updates for Chrome.

Now, I knew Chrome support was coming to an end. Google had announced its end-of-life plans for XP, Vista, and older OS X versions back in November. Even so, I didn't rush to make any changes in my studio system.

I made two assumptions, one where I should have known better (but thankfully didn't get hurt), and another where there was pretty much no warning at all.

My first assumption was that since I only go to three sites on the studio machine: Gmail, Google Calendar, and the conferencing server, that it wouldn't matter if I didn't update Chrome. I wasn't going anywhere that might have malware. I'm running on a Mac so my risks were reduced.

That, especially coming from a so-called cybersecurity "expert," was stupid. If somehow the conferencing site had gotten infected, that malware would have traversed the Internet into my system. I lecture over and over -- using that very machine, mind you -- that you're at risk even if you don't go to traditionally risky sites. You're at risk everywhere, because every site can be a potential carrier.

I was lucky. Very, very lucky.

Here's what I didn't expect. I didn't expect Gmail, Google Calendar, and the conferencing application to suddenly stop working. Gmail in Chrome reported it wanted a more modern version. So I launched Safari. Gmail in Safari complained too.

Apparently, when Google stopped supporting Chrome for Mountain Lion, the company also stopped supporting Mountain Lion in its other applications, and on other browsers.

Nothing would launch Google Calendar, so I couldn't get to the invite that had the URL of the conference. I eventually did it the hard way, printed out the URL, and hand-typed it letter-by-letter into Safari.

I did eventually get into the conferencing software, but that software apparently used a plugin that had also suddenly become obsolete. I spent the entire webcast playing whack-a-mole, constantly batting away alerts telling me a plugin in the software was no longer supported.

At the same time, Skype wanted to do an upgrade. Past experience guided me here, so I clicked the update later button. Skype will happily invite you to do an upgrade, but once the upgrade is complete, it will tell you that your OS is no longer compatible. I've fallen for that before, so I knew it would be foolhardy to do that upgrade before the webcast.

Skype will also obsolete communications protocols to older versions, so I know that if I don't upgrade Skype soon, it will be only a short time before I can't connect to the Skype network.

The natural "if it ain't broke" conflict

Earlier, I stated that in the context of technology, we are going to have to stop following the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" dictum. From my example, you can see why. Unfortunately, upgrading introduces new problems, because while some systems won't run on older platforms, other software won't run on newer platforms.

This leads to what I like to call the natural "If it ain't broke" conflict, which is why so many people are often reticent to perform upgrades.

As much as it pains me to say it (because reconfiguring my studio may take weeks of work), we need to upgrade. We need to upgrade, even if we know it will inevitably break some of our other software.

Many cybersecurity exploits take advantage of older software. Older software can suffer breakage when support is suspended. It's simply become necessary to just bite the bullet and do the upgrades.

As we move forward, here's how best practices need to change. Instead of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," we need to move to an "if there's an upgrade, do it no matter what" mentality.

No doubt this is a hassle. But we're now in a "pay now or pay later" world when it comes to upgrades. It's going to be a hassle, either way. But if we upgrade sooner, at least we can choose the time and place of our confrontation with breakage and incompatibility. If we wait, a critical system could blow up at the worst possible moment.

If you're looking for a bit more nuance to this approach, I always recommend waiting a little while after an upgrade. This allows time for critical release errors and early troublesome bugs to be found and fixed. That strategy hasn't changed. But after an appropriate waiting period, it's time to bite the bullet and do the upgrade.

At the very least, if you do the upgrade on your own schedule, you'll be able to build in a little time and space to locate and replace the soon-to-be-obsoleted components.

Be sure to plan for application and related software upgrades as well. I know that when I upgrade my studio machine from Mountain Lion to Yosemite, a number of key media production applications will no longer function and will need replacing.

Now that some of the older programs have been obsoleted, I'll probably have a bunch of new articles here on DIY-IT that will describe whatever new software I install in the Broadband Studio.

Stay tuned.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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