Posted by: Lars Oestreicher | September 10, 2019

Plan B!

During the last years there has been a number of incidents where the Swedish peer-to-peer money transfer system Swish has been down. There has also been a number of incidents where the Internet banking systems as well as ATM machines have been down, in some cases over more than a day. Now, when the Swedish banks are pushing for the cashless society, this should be a very strong alarm clock. If the electronic transfer systems are hit by a major function disturbance, people will not be able to pay, if there are no alternative payment options (such as cash money). Most interesting, however, is also that it seems that the banks do not have a plan B devised for a major breakdown of the transfer systems.

Now, the breakdowns in the money transfer systems have most of the time lasted less than 24 hours, causing mostly nuisances, rather than having disastrous consequences as a result. There are other areas where the plan B has to exist, and where a complete breakdown constitutes a life-threatening condition. You may probably guess one of those areas? 

On August 24, the hospital in Nyköping suffered a complete blackout that lasted for several hours, and three patients in intensive care had to be evacuated immediately. Another 106 patients were about to get evacuated, when finally the power was restored. However, even when the power was restored, the computer systems were not online until quite some time afterwards. During the blackout, no patients could be admitted and all the activities had to be suspended.. This lasted from lunch time until 21.30 in the evening, i.e. almost 9 hours. 

Now, this was “only” a Power blackout and there were no direct casualties from the event. But, and this is the crucial question, where was plan B? Where were the alternative power sources; where was the backup for the information systems? In the event of a prolonged event, what will happen then? 

Now, if you say that this never, happens, we can just go back a few years in the history.  In 2003 a large part of the eastern USA and Kanada suffered a major blackout, in some areas for almost two weeks, when the complete power grid apart from one main line lost power. If the last power line had also failed, the blackout would have lasted even longer than it did. This was during midvinter, and people found themselves without the possibilities to heat their apartments, and unless they had planned ahead, no ability to cook their food.

Of course, you can’t predict everything that can happen. But on the other hand, if a whole hospital stops working for almost a day due to one single cause, then something is very wrong in the planning for emergencies. And, when we start looking around, this seems to be a major problem with the large electronic/electric infrastructures. The society depends more and more on that they do work, and flawlessly so, because there are no plans for a likely case of a breakdown. 

If organisations are to go fully digital in the future, there will also be a need to make sure that the general infrastructures can handle emergency cases, when something happens. We need to make sure that journals are accessible, even when the computers show black screens. We need to make sure that people can go shopping even if the banking systems don’t work any more. We need to make sure that communications work, even if the computerised logistics systems capsize.

Whenever we go digital in critical organisations, we may not only need a plan B, but maybe, just maybe, we need to create a plan Omega, which will make the society run even when all of our power plants and not least all computers are all down, maybe for a longer period of time, and not just for a few hours. We need a thorough planning for even small disasters, and this planning has to be very pessimistic, and not rely on  that things will work out in the end. 

The big question is: How long can we manage without our computer systems? Without a plan B, or Omega, probably only a few hours at best.

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