See things clearly

Under pressure: IT and the steam boiler

                ... a charred body, a bent watch, two rubber heels and a torn piece of clothing...

The remains of Chief Engineer David Rockwell were found on March 21st 1905, the day after an industrial explosion and intense fire occurred at the Grover Shoe Factory, Brockton, Massachusetts.


The disaster, in which 58 people were killed and 150 injured, began when a

...timeworn boiler succumbed to age and poor engineering and exploded at its seams. The boiler ripped itself from its stanchions and tore a path through the four-story building... [pdf, p11]

At the time, such disasters were not rare.  For example, in the USA, by 1890, there were 100,000 boilers in service and there had been over 2000 boiler explosions in the ten preceding years.


During the era of rapid industrialization and accelerated economic growth in late 19th century America,

...consistent operating guidelines and inspections for steam pressure systems were virtually nonexistent in this period of frenetic industrial activity and commercialism; many boilers in use were unsafe...


...boilers were becoming increasingly larger and more complex, and in the absence of consistent operating guidelines many users cranked up the pressure ratings in an effort to produce additional work...

Over decades the death toll from these continuing accidents reached into the thousands.


Urged on by government, towards the end of the 19th century the boiler industry realised that this toll, not to mention the loss of businesses, was unsustainable,

"They recognized the need for standard tools and machine parts, and uniform work practices ensuring reliability and some measure of predictability in machine design and mechanical production."

Eventually, after years of debate and wrangling in the industry, with protests from some quarters about ‘limitations on steam pressure’, ‘state control of boiler design’, and ‘sabotage’ of company interests, in 1914 the Boiler Code of standards and practices was published, so as to create clarity about how flows of steam interacted with other business assets, and,

 ‘...to make sure that all the pieces fit and hold together safely, even under pressure.’

‘Pressure’ is something that the executives of Research in Motion (RIM), the makers of the BlackBerry phone, are feeling this week, as disgruntled customers have used social media to vent their anger with the company.


For three days, a disastrous outage has prevented data flowing to, and from, many millions of BlackBerry users around the world.


Mike Lazaridis, co-chief of RIM announced that,

"On Monday, we had a hardware failure that caused a ripple effect in our system, a dual-redundant high-capacity core switch designed to protect the infrastructure failed, this caused a cascade failure in our system... a back-up switch ... did not function as intended and this led to a backlog of data...failure in Europe, in turn, overloaded systems elsewhere."

He added that the outage was ‘the largest outage we've ever experienced’ although investigation as to the cause of the accident may take some time because,

 "systems like this don't fail this way.  They're designed so they don't fail in this way"



In my last blog, “Understanding Connections” I wrote,

“...when data doesn’t flow, we have a problem.  Yet in comparison to the 1970s, in my opinion, we have proportionately less understanding of interconnectivity and critical interdependencies.


 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.  That is why it is critical to model business services in order to create clarity about the “downstream” impact of failure or change, and to make the best decisions about how to manage risk.”

Just as a lack of clarity about flows of steam caused disasters for businesses, customers and society over 100 years ago, today a lack of clarity about flows of data also causes disasters.


RIM, though, is not alone in suffering a major ‘data flow disaster’.  During the last 18 months we have seen, for example,


  • the financial industry ‘flash crash’, and ongoing industry-wide IT problems
  • the major ‘cloud’ outages suffered by Amazon, Sony and others
  • the scrapping of the £12billion UK NPfIT, and, worldwide, many other government IT projects
  • the alarmingly rapid increase in successful cybercrime attacks across all business sectors


But these disasters are only the beginning.  We can expect many more, of varying intensity and economic impact in the years ahead.


Carlota Perez has described how, during each of the five Ages of technological revolution since the 1770s, rapid industrial expansion using new technologies has  always been accompanied by the expansion and then collapse of an economic ‘prosperity bubble’. 


And during each subsequent recessionary ‘turning point’, industry and government would then work together to try and understand what had gone wrong, so the ‘installed’ technology could be better utilised to create a ‘golden age’, where the technology was ‘deployed’ to create more sustainable  prosperity.


In practice this usually meant ‘regulation and policies to shape and widen markets.’


If the long term pattern Perez discusses is continuing during the current ‘Age of IT and Telecomms’, at the moment we are in the midst of such a recessionary turning point.  And governments and business groups are only, and tentatively, in the early stages of regulating and shaping markets.


However, the finance industry has lobbied hard to minimise regulation of its activities; there are numerous bodies proclaiming they should be the standard for ‘cloud’; small businesses want fairer competition with the ‘cartels’ that win most government IT contracts; and criminal gangs and nations states attack without warning.


All this in an IT industry where data flow is critical, yet few can see clearly how data flows through the people, process and technology of the business,


  • new technologies continue to be piled on top of legacy systems often without being properly engineered
  • staff turnover means knowledge of poorly documented systems is lost
  • businesses work in silos, nobody can ‘join the dots’
  • it is difficult to accurately financially  value each flow of data


Just as it took the boiler industry many years to evolve to the point where it had clarity on flows, and could makes the best decisions about risk, IT and telecoms are set to go through the same pain.


More data flow disasters are inevitable – which means, because we as individuals are ever more reliant on flows of data to live our lives, some of us are going to share that pain.


So don’t get comfortable...strap yourselves in.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride.



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