A Lesson to be Learned from Delta Airlines’ System Outage | Sherpas in Blue Shirts

Posted On August 9, 2016

Bimodal IT has become common parlance. It is the term for the underlying assumption that large enterprises require stability in their core IT systems, and should therefore not take the risk of migrating to new technology. Instead, the old systems should be maintained in their current condition – or a condition that is fundamentally the same with only minor adjustments – and only use current or next generation IT for new requirements.

While the logic seems to make sense on the surface, there is a major flaw in this argument. IT systems aren’t like fine wines that get better with time. IT systems become old and outdated, just like your own personal computer. Think about it – how many years did it take you to become totally frustrated with the computer you LOVED when you first got it? It was the best thing on the market, was lightning fast, and did all the cool new stuff.  But five years later, it has slowed to a crawl, the operating system isn’t compatible with the latest version of the programs you want to use, and no one has the components or software required to service it. There comes a point in time when it is more risky to hold on to the old than to migrate to the new.

Now let’s test this argument to determine whether it makes as much sense for the enterprise as it does the technology forward consumer.

Delta Airlines’ entire system was shut down due, at least in part, to some of their core IT systems not switching over to backup when Georgia Power encountered a switchgear failure that is the equivalent of blowing a fuse. The result? More than 650 flights were initially cancelled, with thousands more likely at risk of being cancelled later in the day. Of course, the impact of an outage of this magnitude is not limited to a single day. Somehow, all of the passengers still have to get where they were going, and will need to fit in on other flights. There is no way Delta will be able to accommodate all those people, so other airlines will have the opportunity to pitch in and serve those stranded by Delta.

The outage began at 2:30 am, and Delta resumed flight by 9:00 am. In just six and a half hours, Delta lost millions of dollars, ran many of its passengers off to other airlines, and served a major blow to its hard-fought battle to build a reputation as the most reliable U.S.-based international carrier. All in just six and a half hours.

This should force enterprises to look at their IT systems and ask just how stable they really are. Their systems, assuming they are similar to most major airlines, were likely built in the 1990’s – more than 20 years ago. Given the rapid pace of technology changes, a 20 year old system is practically ancient. Who has the skills to service systems that old? How well does the system integrate with new technology? What level of customization and patching together has occurred over the past 20 years to keep the system relevant? How has the system been able to address the vulnerabilities and performance issues resolved by newer technology? In other words, what is the underlying risk associated with an IT system that is a couple of decades old, and is it reasonable to expect it to get better?

Bimodal IT might make sense in some instances when the cost of the risk of obsolescence is low. It can also make sense as a short-term strategy. However, nothing is stable forever, and the increased complication of maintaining old systems adds risk that slowly creeps up over time.

Yes, transitions to newer technology are both costly and risky. But so is having an unexpected total business shutdown due to the inability of an ancient system to continue to perform as it has in the past. Transitions to newer technology can be planned and managed, and seem to be much less of a gamble in the long-run.

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