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Reverse engineering is the process of extracting knowledge from something created without having knowledge of how to create that thing. Also called back engineering, this approach can be used to gain greater insight into both software and machines. There are at least five clever ways in which reverse engineering is used in the real world to gain valuable information for various purposes.
1. Avoiding Obsolescence
Integrated circuits are an example of a product that’s built using proprietary systems that become outmoded in just several years. Nevertheless, due to the costs associated with them, the systems that rely on these integrated circuits often remain in use for decades. Therefore, those who maintain these systems use reverse engineering as a cost-effective way to avoid system obsolescence.
2. Improving Documentation
Technical documentation provides vital information about how a system functions or should be handled or integrated. The problem with such documentation is that it’s very much a product of the time in which it was created. For instance, technical documentation written just five years would likely be unable to explain integration to systems that were innovated just a couple of years ago. Through reverse engineering, this documentation can be expanded and modernized.
3. Interfacing Disparate Systems
Another clever use for reverse engineering is the integration of disparate systems. Let’s consider a simple scenario but one that actually occurs regularly in the real world. Consider a tablet developer that creates a proprietary input for its devices. Now, consider a second developer that creates an output device, such as a game system, with a proprietary output format. In this scenario, the first two companies don’t want to collaborate because they compete, so a third company reverse engineers that input and output in order to create an adapter that allows both devices to communicate.
Another ingenious use of reverse engineering is to take outmoded software and equipment and repurpose it. Often, this is achieved by integrating the outmoded system into a larger, more complex system, but it can also be achieved by altering the interface used to access the outmoded system.
5. Recovering Lost Standards
Standards often don’t stand the test of time, and data, for instance, can be formatted or encapsulated in encryption we no longer recognize. The underlying data often still has value, however, and therefore reverse engineering becomes a way to revive that standard and recover the information.
Reverse engineering sometimes has a negative connotation because people associate it with stealing intellectual property. However, RE is much more than that. It’s an incredibly useful approach to learning that helps us gain information in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible or practical.