Colin Beveridge praises Nats for getting their manual system running when they faced a system failure, and urges other businesses to have a back-up system in place.
I had some sympathy for the National Air Traffic Control service when another systems failure brought severe disruption to the UK’s airports.
Apparently, the root of the problem on this latest occasion was a failure to recover from overnight testing of a system upgrade at West Drayton, and I know from personal experience just how difficult it can be to sustain such key parts of the national infrastructure while trying to move them forward, if you’ll pardon the pun, “in flight”.
I also know just how much planning and sheer hard work goes into making the upgrade process completely seamless and invisible to the world at large. But this is not always successful and we can sometimes end up with the occasional, albeit high-profile, hiccough.
However, in the case of an Air Traffic Control system, incessantly responsible for the safety of many thousands of airborne passengers, there is clearly more at stake than the potential for customer inconvenience and management embarrassment.
In fact, to be blunt, at Swanwick and West Drayton, IT is genuinely a matter of life or death; which is why I was reassured to hear that Nats had been able to invoke a manual system for processing “flight strips” when their West Drayton system failed. Phew!
Thank goodness that they still have a manual system and that they can get it running so quickly. Well done Nats, you are to be commended for not putting all of your eggs in the basket of technology.
For sure, reassuring as the manual process may be, it does also beg the question of whether or not the government should consider extending our public investment in safety to give Nats a higher level of systems resilience, rather than falling back on pencil and paper.
I have this dreadful feeling, though, that our safety-critical national infrastructure has far less resilience and redundancy than the financial infrastructure of the country.
I have good reason to believe that the government, the banks and the financial institutions probably put far more effort and cash each year into protecting the financial integrity of the UK and their own interests than will ever be applied to the National Air Traffic Control Service. Which is worrying.
But I suppose we have to balance that concern against the broader perspective where most businesses in the UK are totally dependent on their technology to sustain their day-to-day operations and yet have no manual fall-back capability.
At least Nats got a proven manual system. For most other businesses who lose their key systems, the only thing they can do manually is to twiddle their thumbs, or to pull their hair out until the computer systems are back up!
Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org