Business continuity when the internet fails

A thin client is no good without its fat pipe. What happens to your business when your country drops off the net?

The day before data lights stopped flickering in Egypt yesterday, Accenture demonstrated its Pocket Supercomputer idea to journalists in the UK. In truth, the Accenture demo was no more a breakthrough in portable processing than checking email on a mobile. The failure of the undersea cables in the Mediterranean, disconnecting Egypt and points east from global services, illustrates just how far removed supercomputers can be from anything you can slip into your trousers.

Nobody has yet built a data link that's guaranteed to work and, unlike local redundancy, it's not possible for any organisation to maintain close control over global connectivity. Even the best plans for multiple backup links with no single point of failure must rely on third parties — and the further away from your data you are, the more things can go wrong in between.

Thin-client computing in general, and web services in particular, have serious implications for business continuity. Your supplier may be able to demonstrate five-nines reliability at the point the service is delivered to their ISP; their ISP and yours may also have impeccable engineering and historical reliability; but if a trawler snags a cable on the sea floor in between, all bets are off.

There are ways to plan for this contingency if you're a supplier of web services: local data centres replicating the distant ones; a solid knowledge of network topology with contingency deals with alternative ISPs; exercises where you really do pull the plug. 

If you're a consumer of business-critical web services, then your responsibility for those parts of the system you can't control is to understand them and those who supply them. The more we as customers ask for and expect evidence of proper engineering and continuity planning from our suppliers, the easier it will be for them to advance these as commercial imperatives within their own organisations — and the more likely they are happen.

The failure of the cables was just a failure. It will become a disaster if nothing is learned — not just by the cable operators, but by everyone downstream.