Thought for the Day: Don't let systems go Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Incisive columnist and IT expert Colin Beveridge looks at a hot issue of the day.I haven't seen the new London production of...

Incisive columnist and IT expert Colin Beveridge looks at a hot issue of the day.I haven't seen the new London production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang yet - it only opened a week ago - but my ears pricked up when I heard on the radio that the second night's performance had been cancelled because of computer failure.

These things always seem to go in threes. First the Air Traffic Control problems at Swanwick and then at West Drayton, now it's the fantasmagorical flying car at the Palladium.

Where will it all end? Will the Teletubbies be compromised by a major hacking incident? Will Ally McBeal be permanently disfigured by a rounding error in the morphing software?

Seriously, though, apart from an estimated revenue loss of £40,000, the producers of the musical motoring extravaganza should have learned an important lesson from their recent failure - mission-critical systems need to be fault-tolerant and fully resilient.

Clearly this was not the case for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the direct consequence was an immediate shutdown until the car's (fairly minor) computer problems could be resolved.

An inexpensive electronic component had thus halted the hi-tech stage version of the movie classic, which cost more than £6m to stage.

OK, hands up everyone out there who has a non-tolerant business critical system that could cause serious inconvenience, or genuine physical risk, if it falls over.
Come on, be honest, we all know that they exist, don't we?

Of course, but we understand our own systems and their shortcomings, so we can take precautions to avoid known problems, or to work round the difficulties. Quite simply, we know how far things will bend before they break.

The trouble is that nowadays pervasive, integrated, computing has created a state where previously undreamed of interactivity between ostensibly disparate systems may occur, possibly because of a unique combination of circumstances.

I'll bet a pound to a penny that the manufacturers of the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang computer never, in their wildest dreams, imagined their product being used to control a "flying" car.

But then again, the system integrators should have anticipated the single point of failure and built in the necessary redundancy and resilience to ensure that the show could go on.

Perhaps they considered the risk of failure and then chose to do nothing. Perhaps not. After all, many businesses do not address the issues of risk management properly, but that is another story.

Of course, prevention is always the best policy, but once a system has failed, the next best thing is to get it running as quickly, and safely as possible.

Although I wasn't at the Palladium last week, I have a strong mental image of a chattering audience, wondering why the play has not started yet, when a flushed director appears through the closed curtains to make an urgent, impassioned plea: "is there a C++ developer in the house?"

Thanks for your time. I hope that you all have a Truly Scrumptious, glitch-free weekend.

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Colin Beveridge
is an interim executive who has held top-level roles in IT strategy, development services and support. His travels along the blue-chip highway have taken him to a clutch of leading corporations, including Shell, BP, ICI, DHL and Powergen.

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