See things clearly

 “Assets will always fail at some point, and with any asset failure there is a chain of consequential loss which is triggered by an originating event.”

Last year, I discussed the vulnerability of the modern city to interruptions in the various critical supply flows that keep it going.


When key flows – water, electricity, natural gas or sewage – are interrupted in an urban area, our lives become very difficult, very quickly.


Interruptions to these critical flows will often cause knock-on interruptions to dependent secondary flows, impacting things like flows of people, flows of vehicles, or flows of goods through supply chains.


Flows of data are no less vulnerable to interruption caused by unexpected interactions with other types of flow.


The recent “Superstorm” Sandy caused large-scale disruption both in the Caribbean and along the eastern seaboard of the United States.  Critical infrastructure in many areas was severely damaged, disrupting many different flows.


Some of the infrastructure effects of the storm on New York, and other parts of the eastern U.S, have been described by Alexis Kwasinski, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Texas.


Two incidents he observed, demonstrate how asset failures which lead to interruption in flow can also have immediate or potentially delayed impacts on flows of data.


On one peninsula, a central telecom office flooded, knocking out the power that feeds countless data flows across the area. Kwasinski notes that the standard front door on the office was a weakness that had provided a point of entry for flows of surge water, and sees a need for submarine-like watertight doors,

‘“This building shouldn’t be vulnerable...But it's got a regular door. Why would you have a regular door?”’

Another incident, elsewhere, caused him to foresee possible data flow problems in the longer term.  Two flooded telecoms offices lost electrical power and Kwasinski suspected that,

‘...the surge had also damaged any copper telecom cables passing through the buildings. Normally, these cables are kept pressurized to prevent water from seeping in and corroding the wires. “But if you don’t have power, you can’t pressurize,”...If the corroded cables aren’t properly replaced, he added, “they’re going have a high failure rate in the future.”’

His assertion was subsequently confirmed, and the telecom company is working on mitigating that risk.


In the business districts of New York City, other asset failures interrupted flows and impacted, or threatened to impact, data flow.  Organisations had to divert resources to deal with the problems.


In one data centre, an isolation valve failed in a fuel system supplying a generator.  Without the appropriate power supply, the temperature in the building rose “above 100 degrees”.  Fearing customer outages, for a few hours the company had to maintain urgent communications with clients about the ongoing situation, until a back-up generator could be delivered, and power restored.


When electricity flow from the power grid was cut, another data centre’s rooftop generator was unable to access fuel supplies in a basement storage tank, because flooding had damaged the pumping system.  To avoid an outage, people from the company, people from client companies, and hired workers, formed a ‘bucket brigade’ to keep the generator going. 


Working through the night, they re-introduced the flow of fuel by passing containers from hand to hand, up the stairs of the building.  The risk of an interruption to the data flows of the centre’s clients was averted.


“Superstorm” Sandy was an extreme event.  But the aftermath of such an extreme provides us with the opportunity to reflect on a key point.


Flows of data are vulnerable to asset failure.


But in today’s digital world, risk lies not only in the failure of IT assets that directly enable data to flow, but also in the failure of other less obvious business assets: a leaky door, a de-pressurised cable, a failed valve or a broken pump.


To repeat a quote from one of my heroes, the science historian James Burke,

“The things around us, the man-made inventions we provide ourselves with, are like a vast network each part of which is interdependent with all the others...change anything in that network and the effects spread like ripples on a pond...”




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