DARPA looks for new ways to decouple legacy code from hardware


Legacy code is the bane of many older organisations existence and it’s hard to modernise, upgrade, and secure, so DARPA wants to change the paradigm.


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The entire US military, the whole of US government for that matter, runs on legacy code that was designed and deployed decades ago, and that’s hard to debug, migrate, secure, and upgrade, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that DARPA, the bleeding edge research arm of the US military, has just announced it’s looking for new ways to replace it all and decouple it from hardware – a key modernisation objective touted by senior Pentagon IT officials.


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The new $40 million program is geared toward situations where completely retiring an IT system is not an option. The Department of Defense has other modernisation efforts that focus on wholesale replacement of software and the development of new enterprise development platforms, but DARPA says the military also needs the capability “for more precise updates.”

“The goal of the [Verified Security and Performance Enhancement of Large Legacy Software] program is to create a developer-accessible capability for piece-by-piece enhancement of software components with new verified code,” a broad agency announcement for the program states.


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The V-SPELLS program is focused on “(re)engineering” legacy software instead of “clean-slate introduction.” DARPA is asking for open-architecture development practices so parts of the code can be replaced while the whole system is still in use or being transferred to a new piece of hardware, according to the announcement.

The lack of ability to go line-by-line has created a logjam when software that was coupled with old hardware needs to be transferred to updated physical tech. The code may have shortcuts put in by developers that are specific to how the software interacts with old hardware — and that render it useless with new hardware.

“As a result, critical systems are locked into obsolete hardware and software components,” according to the announcement.


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DOD IT officials have said that decoupling software from hardware is a needed step in the broader goal of modernizing the force. Whether it is to be able to update software to improve the abilities of a piece of hardware, or vice-versa, it’s important the two can operate independently, Deputy CIO for Information Enterprise Peter Ranks said in March.

“Most programs in the Department of Defense still deliver systems, integrated hardware-software systems,” he said, “so there is a need to drive the de-coupling of our software and hardware as quickly as possible.”

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