Strategic CIO // Executive Insights & Innovation
Commentary
2/7/2014
09:06 AM
Paige Francis
Paige Francis
Commentary
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Outages & The Inconvenience of Convenience

What to do when the worst possible time is all the time? Don't panic -- it's just downtime.

In the wee overnight hours, our campus portal crashed due to a major network outage on the part of our cloud provider. We started receiving calls from students detailing accessibility issues, and we took the communication ball and ran with it. Three hours later, all systems were back up. In between? Virtually no excessive complaints.

I'm sure there were frustrated users inconvenienced by the downtime. Fortunately, a portion of the past year has been spent methodically, transparently, and realistically communicating about the impact of technology at our university: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

If you haven't spent time educating your users on the typicality of downtime, the time is now. Our world is moving more and more toward automation, self-service, and mobility. Users rely on absolute uptime, and when that connection is broken, panic sets in.

[Higher education CIOs are doing fine, thank you. Read Top 10 Myths About Higher Ed CIOs]

Technology will fail. I know this like I know that, every time I sit down to put my feet up, my dog will start running circles to let me know he needs to go outside immediately. I know it like I know that, on nights when I desperately need a full night's sleep, one of my kids will have a nightmare at 2:00 a.m. Downtime occurs at the worst possible time. Why? Because as much as we rely on technology, the worst possible time is all the time.

Technology departments tend to have the bad reputation of exhibiting only reactionary behavior, as if programmers and network admins were simply sitting on their hands and waiting for a notification that the email system is down. If you find yourself stuck in the rut of primarily responding to fires, your leadership needs to make a 180 -- quickly.

The truly valuable technology departments have moved far beyond a role of simple service provider. You need to be better than that. Simple service is expected. However, as in Mario Brothers, you need to beat the simple-service-provider level to even think about higher levels like value, impact, transformation, and efficiency.

Once you remind your users of the normalcy of unexpected downtime and instill in them a confidence about your dedicated response, you will empower them to self-soothe when these events occur. As the Beatles sang, take a sad song and make it better.

Fury at a technical outage is similar to road rage. With cars on roadways, there will be accidents, traffic, and delays. It's simply a price you pay for the convenience of using automation (a car) to get from A to B. You should teach your users to replace downtime frustration with busy work. Take a walk. Visit a colleague. Rearrange some files. There is plenty that you can do outside of the world of technology.

When a storm is coming, families create backup plans, buy ready-to-eat foods, and stock up on candles and firewood. When the electricity goes out, is there prolonged fury? Typically, the response is a resolute "Well, we knew this was coming. Let's make the best of it." Do you cancel your electricity service and find a way to power your home with a bicycle? No, you wake up, give thanks that the electricity is back on, and go about your day.

The same preparation and backup plans should be at the ready 24/7 for tech outages. As a technology leader, you should make different paths to the same services available. Students at Fairfield University can access email via the portal. When the portal is down, they can access their email via the website, direct link to Gmail, or a phone app.

Faculty members may access their courses via the portal, Blackboard, and the website. The major downtimes will typically be network-related with all access dead in the water. During those times, find your communication routes -- social media, text alerts, or cellphone calls to department leaders. Identify these communication methods in advance, and make sure people are aware of them.

Our end goals as technology leaders are to eliminate fear about technology, educate users, and promote efficiency. Being honest about downtime is step No. 1.

Are you better protected renting space for disaster recovery or owning a private cloud? Follow one company's decision-making process. Also in the Disaster Recovery issue of InformationWeek: Five lessons from Facebook on analytics success (free registration required).

Paige Francis is the CIO for IT Services at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. She has a wide range of experience including defining and implementing strategic priorities for applying technology in any environment, rallying consensus across diverse interests, and ... View Full Bio

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Drew Conry-Murray
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Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
2/7/2014 | 10:01:55 AM
Refreshing
This is a refreshing attitude about downtime: it's gonna happen, so let's not lose our minds. It's easy to get hysterical when the digital pipeline stops pumping, but hysteria doesn't help.
hwainwright@dattobackup.com
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hwainwright@dattobackup.com,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/7/2014 | 1:06:00 PM
Re: Refreshing
How one views the affects of downtime may be in correlation with how they're affected by the cost of downtime -- what's their Recovery Time Objective (RTO)?  If it's a business that loses revenue, lost production, or faces compliance fines in the first minutes or hours of downtime, they'll be more proactive to put a business continuity solution in place.
jagibbons
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jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
2/9/2014 | 9:41:17 PM
Re: Refreshing
The cost and impact of downtime needs to be accurately and realistically measured. For some businesses, minutes down cost thousands. For many business, the impact is about irritated employees, not significant lost revenue. We all tend to think we need bulletproof systems that have Six Sigma uptimes, but that really isn't always the case. I'm not in national security or healthcare. If we have systems down for a reasonable time, no one is going to suffer permanently. It will be a major inconvenience, but our business will survive. That kind of realistic view of our true business needs has helped us make appropriate and responsible business continuity investments.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
2/7/2014 | 11:06:06 AM
Downtime downer
Our obsession with being productive 24/7 has infected even that sacred pleasure of childhood: the snow day. My friend's daughter was informed this week her homework was due as scheduled -- via Google Drive. Now the kids must hope for complete power outage. 
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
2/7/2014 | 12:58:39 PM
Re: Downtime downer
Interestingly, I just read about a school system piloting a plan to hold school as usual during forseeable snow days by e-learning:

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/01/31/20snow.h33.html?tkn=RTUFsL%2BLh8HNCVo1phLYFgvvKp8QEVbxfwpe&cmp=SOC-EDIT-FB

The concept is, kids would rather that than go longer at the end of the year when the weather is nice. As a parent, you don't agree?
Drew Conry-Murray
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Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Ninja
2/7/2014 | 1:29:57 PM
Re: Downtime downer
Heck no! I like snow days. And what about kids who don't have a good Internet connection, or only one computer at home but kids in different grades?
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
2/7/2014 | 1:49:33 PM
Re: Downtime downer
Presumably the lessons would be posted, and if only one device is available, the children would take turns and use their books while a sibling is online. However, yes, there's potential for kids without broadband to be left out.

I think it makes sense in places like Chicago, where kids could be out for days at a time. The schools need to make loaner devices available and have allowances for lack of Internet. However, it's a natural next step.
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
2/7/2014 | 5:46:30 PM
Re: Downtime downer
For another view on downtime, check out Beth Israel Deaconess CIO John Halamka's personal blog comparing downtime in 2002 versus 2013 -- including that his colleagues now have zero tolerance for downtime, and that the causes of downtime now are harder to anticipate and diagnose: 

http://geekdoctor.blogspot.com/2013/07/downtime-in-2002-verses-2013.html
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