The Lessons of Memphis - InformationWeek
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9/26/2007
09:25 AM
Irwin Lazar
Irwin Lazar
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The Lessons of Memphis

This week saw a major meltdown of the air traffic control system in Memphis, Tennessee leaving air traffic controllers unable to communicate with other control centers to route planes between regions.  The failure occurred when telecommunications service to the FAA’s Memphis center were disrupted, leaving controllers without telephone services.  This outage exposes the potential problems by relying on a single channel for communications and collaboration.

News outlets reported that in the wake of the communications failure, air traffic controllers relied on personal cell phones to call neighboring centers to handoff control of planes in the air.

This even should serve as a wake-up call to collaboration and communication managers in any organization.  A simple loss of phone lines exposed the lack of a back-up communications and collaboration strategy, leaving workers to come up with their own ad-hoc means to communicate, in this case in an environment where dozens of flights were affected.  The notion that no back-up communications channels, such as instant messaging (or persistent group chat) were unavailable is disturbing, as is the fact that a key operations center could be basically shut down by the loss of a telecommunications link.

Enterprises, especially those requiring critical, always-available communications should take a fresh look at their own communications and collaboration strategy.  How would they cope in the event of a major power or communications service outage?  Are backup data channels and paths available?  What alternative services exist should major systems go down?  All these questions require answers.

Collaboration and communication managers should closely work with network architects to ensure that availability and resiliency strategies are closely aligned with the type of operations conducted at each site.  They should conduct drills to ensure that teams are properly trained in the use of alternate channels.  These drills should include not only scenarios of loss of applications, but also loss of physical resources such as power, water, or facilities.  Enterprises should build resiliency into their collaboration and communication strategies from the start, not after a major outage exposes flaws in current approaches.

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