The risks of not updating software

Failing to update your software may expose your network to at least 5 types of risks. Are you ready to face them?

We’re all familiar with software updates. Our cell phones do them on an almost daily basis, and we’ve all had pop-ups when starting some software that notified us that a newer version was available and offered to download and install it. One of the most time-consuming tasks that network admins need to perform regularly is updating software and systems that are part of their network.

Some of them delay updates to verify potential new bugs that these fixes may introduce to their systems. Others need time to test if updated software will be still compatible with other elements of their network (for example custom-made or legacy systems that they still need to run in their network). Updating is a little bit like washing your feet - it feels like a daily waste of precious time. Nobody notices if you forget it once or twice, but failing to do it all together results in serious social disadvantages.

Risk Number One: Security

There are many reasons why you should update software but, at the very top, security is the main one. It is a jungle out there—today more than ever—and some ill-intentioned individuals and groups have nothing better to do than try to find every single loophole in any piece of software. Some do it just for fun, others to gain access to one of your most precious assets: your data. This forces software publishers to always be on the lookout and publish fixes as soon as any vulnerability is discovered, preferably before someone malicious finds a way to exploit it and cause you harm.

An exploit can sometimes find its way into your organization with no particular action on your part other than viewing a rogue website, opening a compromised message, or playing infected media. This malware can then steal your data or, even worse, allow an attacker to gain control over your computer(s). Once they have control, you are at their mercy. This is, incidentally, how ransomware works. An attacker could, for instance, encrypt some of your files and demand money in exchange for the decryption key.

Software updates exist for several reasons, but fixing security flaws or patching vulnerabilities is, by far, their most crucial purpose. The longer you keep outdated or unpatched software running in your organization, the higher the risk of a network hack.

Risk Number Two: Bugs

We’re not talking about insects here. Nobody is perfect. I’m certainly not, you’re probably not either and so are software developers. It is a fact that, as much as they hate it, they do make mistakes. What's more, fixing bugs may in some cases introduce new bugs. But more importantly, no matter how well the software is tested, some of these errors will not be detected in-house and will eventually make it into software releases.

Most of these bugs will only affect users in very specific and rare circumstances. This is why they originally went unnoticed but there is a risk that one specific action that you need to perform will have unexpected results due to a software bug.

Just like software publishers tend to quickly release security patches, they also quickly release bug fixes. Some of them do it regularly while others do it as required. How bug fixes are deployed is kind of irrelevant from a user's standpoint, though. What is important is to realize that, although you may have never experienced a particular bug, you shouldn't wait until you do to install the fix. You would be taking an unnecessary risk.

Risk Number Three: Obsolescence

Software updates don’t always address security issues or bugs. Sometimes, they are just there to add new functionality or improve existing features, for example in response to new legal requirements or industry guidelines. By choosing not to install software updates, you run the risk of using obsolete software that cannot benefit from the latest and greatest improvements or changes.

Risk Number Four: Incompatibilities

Piggybacking on the previous risk, outdated software can also disrupt employee workflow or fail to work with other (duly updated) software. For instance, certain employees using updated software could run into compatibility issues when exchanging files with others that are using older software. Other updated systems in your network may become incompatible. An outdated piece of software might not always open files from newer program versions, or may not support new features or requirements introduced in other systems. Productivity could be affected if employees using different versions cannot efficiently exchange data.

Risk Number Five: Software “Rot”

We've all experienced software that slowly deteriorated over time and didn't perform as efficiently as when first installed. This is especially true of operating systems but it does happen to other kinds of software as well. This is what is commonly called software rot. Not everyone believes that software rot even exists but you can’t deny that there is often an unexplained performance degradation over time, giving some credence to the concept.

Of course, contrary to food rot, this is not caused by some natural decay process but rather by the accumulation of all sorts of junk such as log entries, temporary files and what have you. Software rot made it on this list for one main reason: installing software updates will often get rid of whatever is causing that rot and restore your software's original performance.

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