Turn it off and on again

How many times have a company’s IT department given that advice to a staff member? It seems that while that may be the accepted way to reboot a computer, when it comes to critical data systems it is not such a wise thing to do.

Few people can be unaware of the global meltdown of British Airways’ systems in the weekend before Nor-Shipping and the chaos that it caused when for almost a whole day every BA flight was cancelled. There were plenty of theories as to what the root cause may have been for the crash with cyber attack and security measures over a terrorist threat being downplayed among the most common.

However, according to BA it was actually due to a problem with a power surge and an inoperative UPS as a technician was doing some maintenance work. Some experts have dismissed the explanation but there have been some comments that should cause ship operators moving into the cyber age to consider their options.

In a report in the Guardian newspaper last week one expert Andy Hirst, specialist projects director at the data centre builder Sudlows, was quoted as saying it was shocking just how many data centres lacked the resilience to deal with common problems. “A number of failures could have resulted in the downtime. Some organisations invest millions in IT equipment but seem to overlook the infrastructure required to ensure the IT equipment is kept running with no power outages.”

Matthew Bloch, another quoted in the same report said the real problem was not what happened when the power went off but what happened when it was turned back on. He asked: “When was the last time somebody test-rebooted a crucial database? Or executed a procedure like restoring a server? Was there pressure to say it’ll only take an hour when it’ll really take a day?” The aviation sector it seems is notorious for running on IT systems that are two decades old and coming to the end of their useful life but which cannot be turned off for replacing or refurbishing.

As shipping starts to become aware of the problems of cyber attack – it will be under discussion at MSC 98 which begins tomorrow – it is clear it cannot overlook even more basic aspects of the modern era.

A similar computer breakdown at a shipping company may not be capable of causing the human misery that the BA incident did, but it could prove expensive in lost revenue and customer confidence.