The five 9s of madness

perspective CIOs can enhance their status beyond IT's utility function by abandoning the maddening "nines", acknowledging the fact that uptime and high service levels are now an expectation.

perspective It is a bit flabbergasting to me to hear that many IT shops are still pursuing 9s as their ultimate expression of value. If you are unfamiliar with the term, each 9 represents a decimal place after 99 percent percent and usually refers to IT availability or uptime. Thus "two 9's" would be equivalent to 99.99 percent, while "four 9's" would be 99.9999 percent availability.

This concept originated during the early days of IT, when engineers managed refrigerator-sized machines that would break down almost as often as they would run at peak performance. At this point, IT was not particularly critical to most corporations, and was the equivalent of a new and untested machine on the production floor. It was great while it operated, but downtime and failures were expected. The best way to benchmark this unknown commodity was to track when it was working versus downtime. While this was fine for a period, uptime no longer is something to be touted and tracked to fifteen decimal places, rather it is an expectation. In effect, IT's basic services and infrastructure have become a utility.

I have used the electric company as an analogy for modern corporate IT in the past, and it is still a good one. No one praises the electric company when the lights come on at the flick of a switch, nor does anyone care about the complexity of modern electricity delivery, despite the fact that many large utilities are literally splitting atoms. The only time one generally considers the electric company is to demand lower rates, or violently complain during an increasingly rare outage. No one cares if the electricity works to seven 9's of reliability the other 364 days a year when they want to sit down with a cold beer and watch a movie and the power is out. Sounds familiar to anyone in IT?

Some CIOs are surprised when their presentation's about uptime, or suggestions that an element of their compensation be tied to it are met with a resounding yawn, yet consider how you would react if the electric company called and requested higher rates when the electricity came on every day as you would expect? It may be a painful truth, but all that complex infrastructure and the people you keep on payroll to support it are your corporation's electric company, and are measured with the same set of expectations: no one considers these functions until they are out, and the only cost-related requests you will ever receive will be for more services with less money.

What is also interesting about the electric company analogy is that many leading electricity providers also demonstrate some of the strategies that CIOs can use to focus away from the utility aspect of their business. As a focus on "green" becomes more prevalent, and adoptions of new technologies like electric cars seem more likely, many utilities are providing services beyond mere electricity generation at the lowest cost, installing infrastructure and tools that do everything from help consumers manage their energy use more efficiently, to home automation solutions that can turn on or off the heat or air conditioning from hundreds of miles away. These types of services provide high-value convenience beyond the traditional utility function, a role that CIOs must fill as well.

CIOs can enhance their status beyond IT's utility function by abandoning the maddening "nines", acknowledging the fact that uptime and high service levels, are now an expectation. Rather than touting the equivalent of showing up for work every day, provide the corporate counterpart of lifestyle and convenience features. These need not require more infrastructure and budget, and can be as simple as publishing short informational bulletins to key executives and division heads about new technology. Rather than the CFO hearing about the wonders of the iPad or new Android devices from his 14-year-old son, send a three paragraph email. On the high end, make sure every member of your staff has two or three recent success stories in their back pocket that show how IT has helped the company increase revenue, access a new market, or streamline an ongoing cost. Instead of boring colleagues with tales of how many nines of reliability are added by the new virtualization solution, tell your peers about how you can now help them get a new business application and associated testing and training environments out in days rather than weeks or months, or how employees love the new HR system that also cut administrative costs by 15 percent.

While some may miss the days of being lauded for heroic efforts "chasing nines" and bringing servers back from the dead in the wee hours of the morning, continuing this attitude makes the CIO position about as valuable as the chief electricity officers of a century ago are today.

Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of "Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology". Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. This article was first published as a blog post on