Soaring complexity of IT means more data meltdowns likely

26 Aug 2013

Smartphones, apps, cloud computing, Skype, real-time trading, Instagram, big data … all these things add up to create an IT world far more complex than anyone could have envisioned even a decade ago. Expect scenarios like the NASDAQ IT crash and the Google outage last week and debacles like Ulster Bank’s IT meltdown last year to become commonplace unless the IT skills to manage these systems catch up.

Last week, a three-hour routine network shutdown paralysed the operation of the NASDAQ stock market in New York, bringing trading to a standstill.

The failure was understood to be caused by a communication failure between the platform for processing quotes and trades and other markets, like the New York Stock Exchange.

Future Human

The outage was the latest in a series of system crashes to have affected players like Google, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft in recent weeks. Yesterday Instagram, Vine, Netflix, Airbnb and a number of other web services running off an Amazon data centre in Northern Virginia were disrupted for several hours due to a glitch.

This is raising concerns that the cloud computing world the IT industry is ushering businesses and governments into has feet of clay.

Don’t get me wrong, the advances in technology have been staggering and will continue unabated.

The weakest link is people and the shortage of skilled professionals to keep this always-on world of cloud computing, mobile apps and big data ticking over.

The series of meltdowns brought to mind a warning in recent weeks given by Prof Mike Hinchey of Lero, Ireland’s Software Engineering Research Centre, and former director of NASA’s software engineering lab.

Exasperated by Silicon Valley’s “build an app and become a millionaire” culture, Hinchey said that as well as more people being able to code there needed to be an emphasis on professional standards because software is a resource upon which the world now depends.

“There is a big leap between 13-year-olds generating revenue from apps to developing air-traffic control systems where lives would be at stake.”

Lives and livelihoods at stake

Hinchey has a point. Last year, what should have been a routine software upgrade at Ulster Bank resulted in frustration and misery for thousands of the bank’s customers across Ireland.

Some 750,000 people were unable to withdraw cash, pay their mortgages and transfer funds, as salary transfers, direct debits and social welfare payments were held up. The debacle cost the bank an estimated €103m, including €52m in compensation.

During the summer, a network failure mired what should have been a great day for mobile operator Three, which had just acquired O2 Ireland for €780m and thus obtained control of 40pc of the mobile market in Ireland.

Providers like Amazon are giving businesses “servers on demand” via the cloud – a simple credit card transaction will get businesses IT assets over the internet that they used to have to buy physically. This is a brilliant development that will no doubt enable the next industrial revolution.

But it is a battle within the tech sector to constantly innovate and come up with new platforms in order to sell stuff – it was the PC and client/server in the 1980s, Y2K at the turn of the century and cloud in the last few years.

Companies like Google, Facebook and Instagram have created a world where we expect everything to work. A photo we upload from a wedding via our iPhone to Facebook is occurring in real-time in seconds across the Atlantic, bouncing between data centres in Northern Sweden and California. It all looks instant and easy, but that’s not the case.

As Hinchey rightfully pointed out, software and data are pumping through the arteries of our digital lives. An emphasis on skills and professional standards will be necessary to ensure that lives aren’t only disrupted, that lives aren’t lost.

IT meltdown image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years