Designing Systems for Peak Demand

I was interested to read Tom Ilube’s comments on the BBC Website about the failure of Northern Rock’s systems to cope with the recent exceptional demand. As one of the pioneers of online banking (he was Egg’s CIO) he should have a good perspective of what is achievable in designing systems that can respond to unanticipated peaks in demands. As Tom points out, building systems that can cope suddenly with a completely unexpected burst of perhaps 10 or 20 times their normal processing volume is notoriously difficult to do, but by no means impossible.

So what went wrong? Was it financial constraints, a lack of planning or perhaps a deliberate ploy to slow a potential run on the bank? In such cases I generally assume a cock-up rather than a conspiracy. Organisations are not good at planning for extreme circumstances. It’s outside their experience. But today’s business world is much more volatile and fast-moving, and the pace will continue to increase, because the faster the business cycle, the higher the revenues.

As Tom suggests, every bank chief executive should ask their IT director today “If we are hit by 10 times our normal customer volume tomorrow, what will happen to our online banking system?” And based on my experience of business continuity planning, I’d add a further demand. “Prove it”.