As I am writing this blog post, it appears that BP has been able to cap the leaking oil well responsible for one of the greatest man-made environmental disasters in recent history. If the static kill and relief well combination is successful in the next week or so, the oil well will be closed forever and the arduous cleanup process can start in earnest. But cleaning up the mess is not the only difficult process we will have to work through.

The final determination of what went wrong, of what caused this disaster, of what systems failed, and of whom to blame will go on for years to come. However, in the meantime we have some evidence to consider of particular interest to information technology professionals. It seems the infamous blue screen of death (BSOD) played a role in this particular disaster.

According to a news account from Computerworld and the New York Times, Michael Williams, the chief electronics technician aboard the Transocean-owned Deepwater Horizon, in testimony at a fderal hearing, said:

“… the rig’s safety alarm had been habitually switched to a bypass mode to avoid waking up the crew with middle-of-the-night warnings. … The machine had been locking up for months, producing what he and others on the crew called a ‘blue screen of death.’ ‘It would just turn blue. You’d have no data coming through.'”

Obviously, habitually ignoring safety alarms and control systems that catastrophically crash to a BSOD is no way to run an oil rig. It sounds to me that the operation of the Deepwater Horizon was a disaster just waiting to happen. But can we really assess blame on the technology? Doesn’t the ignoring of safety alarms and failing computer systems for months really fall into the human error category? I know the anti-Microsoft crowd would love to point at Windows and make wild generalizations that [insert alternative OS here] would have prevented this disaster because it never crashes blah, blah, blah, but we really don’t know yet what operating system was even involved, so any finger-pointing at a specific OS is premature.

But what do you think? How much blame should we put on the information technology involved?

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