ZDNet UK's list of top 10 IT failures

As you might imagine, I'm a sucker for failure trivia. ZDnet UK has compiled a list of the top ten IT disasters of all time.

As you might imagine, I'm a sucker for failure trivia. ZDnet UK has compiled a list of the top ten IT disasters of all time.

Although I question the inclusion of some items on the list, it's worth a peek:

1. Faulty Soviet early warning system nearly causes WWIII (1983)

[It] happened back in 1983, and was the direct result of a software bug in the Soviet early warning system. The Russians' system told them that the US had launched five ballistic missiles. However, the duty officer for the system, one Lt Col Stanislav Petrov, claims he had a "...funny feeling in my gut", and reasoned if the US was really attacking they would launch more than five missiles.The trigger for the near apocalyptic disaster was traced to a fault in software that was supposed to filter out false missile detections caused by satellites picking up sunlight reflections off cloud-tops.

2. The AT&T network collapse (1990)

In 1990, 75 million phone calls across the US went unanswered after a single switch at one of AT&T's 114 switching centres suffered a minor mechanical problem, which shut down the centre. When the centre came back up soon afterwards, it sent a message to other centres, which in turn caused them to trip and shut down and reset.

The culprit turned out to be an error in a single line of code — not hackers, as some claimed at the time — that had been added during a highly complex software upgrade.

3. The explosion of the Ariane 5 (1996)

In 1996, Europe's newest and unmanned satellite-launching rocket, the Ariane 5, was intentionally blown up just seconds after taking off on its maiden flight from Kourou, French Guiana. The European Space Agency estimated that total development of Ariane 5 cost more than $8bn (£4bn). On board Ariane 5 was a $500m (£240m) set of four scientific satellites created to study how the Earth's magnetic field interacts with Solar Winds.

According to a piece in the New York Times Magazine, the self-destruction was triggered by software trying to stuff "a 64-bit number into a 16-bit space".

4. Airbus A380 suffers from incompatible software issues (2006)

The Airbus issue of 2006 highlighted a problem many companies can have with software: what happens when one program doesn't talk to the another. In this case, the problem was caused by two halves of the same program, the CATIA software that is used to design and assemble one of the world's largest aircraft, the Airbus A380.

Put simply, the German system used an out-of-date version of CATIA and the French system used the latest version. So when Airbus was bringing together two halves of the aircraft, the different software meant that the wiring on one did not match the wiring in the other. The cables could not meet up without being changed.

[Ed. note: To see my coverage of this failure, click here.]

5. Mars Climate Observer metric problem (1998)

[A] problem occurred when a navigation error caused the lander to fly too low in the atmosphere and it was destroyed.

What caused the error? A sub-contractor on the Nasa programme had used imperial units (as used in the US), rather than the Nasa-specified metric units (as used in Europe).

6. EDS and the Child Support Agency (2004)

Business services giant EDS waded in with this spectacular disaster, which assisted in the destruction of the Child Support Agency (CSA) and cost the taxpayer over a billion pounds.

EDS's CS2 computer system somehow managed to overpay 1.9 million people and underpay around 700,000, partly because the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decided to reform the CSA at the same time as bringing in CS2.

7. The two-digit year-2000 problem (1999/2000)

That the predictions of doom came to naught is irrelevant, as we're not talking about the disaster that was averted, but the original disastrous decision to use and keep using for longer than was either necessary or prudent double digits for the date field in computer programs. A report by the House of Commons Library pegged the cost of fixing the bug at £400bn. And that is why the Millennium Bug deserves a place in the top 10.

8. When the laptops exploded (2006)

It all began simply, but certainly not quietly, when a laptop manufactured by Dell burst into flames at a trade show in Japan. There had been rumours of laptops catching fire, but the difference here was that the Dell laptop managed to do it in the full glare of publicity and video captured it in full colour.

It was an expensive issue for Dell to sort out. As a result of its investigation Dell decided that it would be prudent to recall and replace 4.1m laptop batteries.

9. Siemens and the passport system (1999)

It was the summer of 1999, and half a million British citizens were less than happy to discover that their new passports couldn't be issued on time because the Passport Agency had brought in a new Siemens computer system without sufficiently testing it and training staff first.

10. LA Airport flights grounded (2007)

Some 17,000 planes were grounded at Los Angeles International Airport earlier this year because of a software problem. The problem that hit systems at United States Customs and Border Protection (USCBP) agency was a simple one caused in a piece of lowly, inexpensive equipment.

[Ed. note: To see my coverage of this failure, click here.]

Newsletters

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
See All
See All