Emerging Tech

The five 9s of madness

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.

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% and usually refers to IT availability or uptime. Thus "two 9's" would be equivalent to 99.99%, while "four 9's" would be 99.9999% 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 when it was down. 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. Sound familiar to anyone in IT?

Some CIOs are surprised when their presentations 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 e-mail. 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 cuts administrative costs by 15%.

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.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

10 comments
Systems Guy
Systems Guy

Patrick, I have to take exception to your comment " ...that would break down almost as often as they would run..." What numbers, facts, figures are you baseing this comment on? While I would agree that the EARLY computers, late 1940's to maybe the early 1960's this may have been true. I'd guess from the mid 1960's on and speaking from a mainframe point of view, this 50% uptime was not true; the percentages were higher then that. Did mainframes break down? Absolutely. But the uptime did improve as the technology matured. (Been there, lived it.)

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

Outages are guarranteed. 1 major multiday, 2 to 3 for hours to a day or so, total appliance resets at least once a month. And that's not even counting brown outs.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

that any part of any technological industry would ever forget about diminishing returns. Nowhere is it more acute than in these "nines": W00-h00t!! We managed with out mad 1337 skillz to improve our performance by ... a whopping one tenth of a percent of a percent! (That's the difference between 99,99 and 99,999 - one in a hundred thousand) Brace yourselves for the next .com crash... driving with nines it's a given.

ACLx
ACLx

Sorry Patrick, your definition of 5 9s is incorrect. 5 9s is 99.999%, or about 6 mins downtime per year.

dlself
dlself

The author doesn't know... what 5 9's is, what the history of the business is, generalizes what he does not know or understand, ... but the last paragraph is due a little consideration.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

When one starts "chasing nines", it's already too late. "Chasing Nines" means that one has already accepted failure at some measurable rate. Excellence is impossible when failure is acceptable.

Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182

When human beings are involved, mistakes are inevitable. Some of these mistakes will lead to failures. Acceptable or not, it's gonna happen; we need to be ready to minimize the effects of human error. Murphy's Law sez: Computers are unreliable -- human beings are even more unreliable.

ken.donoghue
ken.donoghue

I would refer you to the chart on Wikipedia (High Availability, Percentage Calculation) for the correct definition of nines.

COESE
COESE

I couldnt agree more. We measure uptime on servers and call it system availability. That's not system availability just because the server is functioning. The software has to be fully operational and useful as well. How do you measure that?

seanferd
seanferd

The uptime is incredible. I wring my hands and pray for a system failure, that the madness might abate for a moment or two.

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