Faith in IT can be lost at the flick of a switch

The recent BA IT failure showed just how the expectations that IT will always work can quickly evaporate and got Billy MacInnes wondering on the cause of the problems

I have to say that I find the recent revelations over the cause of the BT IT failure which led to 700 flights from Heathrow and Gatwick being cancelled over the bank holiday weekend, standing 75,000 passengers, funny in both a “ha ha” and an “oh my God” way.

Initially, BA suggested an exceptional power surge had caused the problem. The company elaborated on the issue on 31 May when it revealed the failure was caused by damage to servers by an overwhelming surge when the electricity was restored after a loss of power. “There was a total loss of power at the data centre,” the company said in a statement. “The power then returned in an uncontrolled way causing physical damage to the IT servers.”

BA stressed that “it was not an IT issue, it was a power issue”.

However, observers were quick to point out to Reuters that a large enterprise such as BA with a main IT system and a backup should not be vulnerable to a power surge in a single location. Most large organisations usually have UPS and backup systems in place for their data centre operations.

I think we can all agree that’s not a laughing matter as it shows a level of unpreparedness you wouldn’t expect from such a big business. However, what is a laughing matter (as well as being quite shocking) is the latest suggestion about the cause of the initial power failure. According to reports, the failure was caused by a maintenance worker accidentally switching off the power supply.

It sounds absolutely ridiculous that a data centre could fail because someone switched off the power supply, something that you would assume would be the stuff of comedy, but it’s not completely unbelievable. However, the company managing the data centre was quick to pour cold water on the story, claiming the cause of the failure had not yet been determined. “Any speculation to the contrary is not founded in fact,” CBRE told The Guardian.

Still, there’s something comical (farcical even) about a scenario where a company is brought to its knees by a catastrophic IT failure and the camera pans to someone kneeling at a plug socket going “Oops!”. It’s not too hard to imagine a comedy team writing a sketch about it right now even if most people in the IT world would dismiss it as far-fetched and absurd. Nevertheless, the fact people outside the IT industry are willing to accept it as a potential cause of the failure shows their faith in the robustness and resilience of IT can be changed with the flick of a switch.

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