Fail by design: Banking's legacy of dark code
Zulfikar Abbany, 03.05.2018, DW
Is it modernize or die? Or modernize and die? For banks updating their computer systems with secure mobile features it can be both. Many run mainframes on legacy code that's gone dark — no one understands it anymore.
Deutschland - Frankfurt am Main - Skyline (picture alliance/dpa/B. Roessle)
High street banking used to be a simple business. If you were lucky enough to have any shrapnel to your name, you would go into your local branch, maybe chat with the manager (who you'd invariably find with a rag in his hand, dusting the counters), count out your copper, scribble on a chit, pay in a check, and walk out with a smile on your face. There was even an ad on TV, while I was growing up in the UK, telling you to "laugh all the way to the Leeds."
Those days are gone, of course. We now want, or have been told to expect, secure mobile internet banking, with all the complexity and automation that it demands.
As for laughs, you just fondle the phone in your pocket with a giggly grin.
But no one was laughing when theTSB Bank tried to upgrade its computer system one Sunday afternoon in April, while simultaneously migrating a billion customer records.
It did not go well.
TSB Bank's internet and mobile banking suffered a meltdown. Many customers were unable to access their accounts, or they saw wrong balances. And some even saw other people's accounts instead of their own.
IT upgrades seldom go without a glitch. But when it comes to banks, the problems were built into the system 60 years ago — albeit unwittingly — when computer languages like COBOL and FORTRAN first reared their sturdy heads.
TSB Bank Logo (Wikipedia/orangeacid)
No "hole in the wall" — but TSB Bank's computer meltdown in April will probably put a hole in its profits
"When these large scale financial systems were developed, they were developed on mini and mainframe [computer] systems," says Simon Moores, a former UK "IT ambassador" and managing director at Zentelligence Research.
They were big systems with inscrutable names, like HP minis, DEC VAX, Dexcom, or IBM MVS, running in big rooms, creating lots of heat.
"Those things are robust. The best analogy is that of a tank or a Kalashnikov — you can drop it, kick, fill it full of sand and it just works," says Moores. "It was created with COBOL running underneath, and it was absolutely suitable for the environment and the requirements of the time."
But over time we've added more and more requirements at increasing speed as the technology has advanced, and it's getting harder to tell how each new layer will interact with the old — especially as COBOL is now what some programmers call "dark code." All the experts have either retired or died, few universities teach it, and as a result even fewer people can understand or fix it.
When the TSB Bank tried to upgrade its system, it appears the upgrade couldn't cope with the level of transactions coming in at that same time.
"A slight incompatibility cascades into something catastrophic, and, I would suggest, that maybe nobody existed to be able to look at the code, or even understand the code, because it was compiled [Ed.: source code is compiled or "interpreted" before it is executed], to know what might possibly go wrong — other than to code it with your fingers crossed," says Moores.
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