Hazards of an interconnected world

30 May 2017 - 09:21 By ROBERT COLVILLE
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Thousands of customers were left stranded at London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports at the weekend as an IT problem - due, apparently, to a "power supply issue" - grounded all British Airways flights.

When it comes to IT, we often focus on enemy action: hacking attempts of the type that recently disrupted companies and organisations around the world. Yet the BA debacle is a reminder that, in terms of strength and stability, the systems running our lives are often just as fragile.

Just recently, for example, BA's website suffered a similar outage. As did the baggage-handling systems at Gatwick. As did a data centre run by Capita, which hosts many town councils' online services. As did deliveries for the supermarket chain Sainsbury's, which had to resort to printing out its online orders.

In many cases, the problem is a combination of complexity and antiquity. What is puzzling about the BA case is the sheer range of systems affected, from reservations to ticketing to baggage-handling. Each should, in theory, be largely separate, with multiple redundancies built in.

But then, IT systems tend to be Frankenstein creations, based on layers of code piled up over the decades. Understanding the networks and devices that run ATM networks, power stations, air traffic control, tax collection, even nuclear weapons design, can be closer to archaeology than technology - especially with those key systems that no one ever quite dares turn off, for fear they won't come back on.

Yet the BA collapse is also a parable of the modern economy. As business has become more interconnected, it has also got leaner. Each company does what it is best at, outsourcing the rest to others, who may outsource in turn. BA recently did this with its IT systems, sacking hundreds of experienced British staff in favour of Indian contractors.

In general, this is much more efficient, and cheaper, than the old way of doing things. But it is also more fragile. In 2011, for example, an earthquake in Japan disrupted its entire car industry by knocking out the factory that provided a particular vital microchip.

For consumers, the result is hardly ideal - with holidays ruined by a power surge in a random UK data centre, or the errors of a subcontractor half a world away. But our own lives are proof of the benefits this system has brought.

For example, the reason why BA's collapse was such big news was simple: so many people were flying. In the old days, a trip out of the country was something out of the ordinary. Today, we think nothing of jetting off on holiday for a quick bit of sun. Between 2000 and 2050, global mobility - the total length of the journeys we all collectively take - is expected to triple or quadruple.

Even when we stay at home, interconnectedness brings the world to our door, not least in the form of fruit and veg that is available year-round, in defiance of the seasons. That can happen because the transport cost of most goods is now roughly 1% of the sale price - resulting not just in a surge of trade but a level economic playing field that drives down prices and drives up quality.

For those poor passengers whose holiday plans have been ruined, it may be scant consolation that their predicament provides the perfect case study for the virtues - and the flaws - of our interconnected age.

Today, we are all hopelessly, hilariously dependent on systems so complex and chaotic that we have only the dimmest understanding of how they work. The miracle is not that they occasionally break down, but that they generally work so well.

- ©The Daily Telegraph

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