Electrical Technology: Running On Unreliability

July 19, 2002
Few business topics receive more attention these days than reliability. Indeed, most enterprises are completely dependent on information technology, linked by web-hosted networks, engineered for automation, and vulnerable to the losses that can ensue from even a moment or two of unplanned downtime. The level of awareness, attention, and spending on reliability is arguably at an all-time high.

It's a good bet that your average CEO thinks that his or her company has invested in, equipped, and runs a reliable critical facility. Information specialists may even assure it. Extraordinary sums are spent on top-rated servers, connections, routing, and back-up equipment. Many IT managers can boast that their technology systems are designed to five-nines or six-nines reliability - the highest achievable standards.

With all of these bright minds and capital expenditures devoted to reliability, how then can we make the case that corporate America may be running less reliably than ever before?
Our company regularly meets with organizations and corporations about improving the uptime of their critical facilities and data centers. It's rare that an organization, regardless of size or sophistication, doesn't know the reliability rating of its IT system. It's usually quite high. Investing in IT gives corporations a tangible competitive edge. Every IT system, however, is housed in a building or multiple buildings, which must likewise function reliably or jeopardize all operations within it (Figure 1). So we ask, "How reliable is your facility?"
The mute stares that usually greet this question answer it fully. In the stampede to upgrade and ensure IT reliability, few companies know how reliable their overall facilities are, or how to go about making them so. They have never considered the holistic interdependence of IT to the facility that contains it. As a result, they may have over-funded IT in a vain attempt to achieve reliability at the expense of every other component of operational infrastructure. They may have enlisted a technology software or hardware vendor to design and construct their data center, foregoing important checks, balances, and best practices in the process. They may have never tested their back-up equipment under real-life stresses. In sum, they may consistently overlook the other major contributors that comprise true reliability, or functional reliability in real-world conditions, from the baseline power supply and HVAC system to simple matters of equipment maintenance and commissioning. As in any integrated system, you are only as reliable as your least-reliable component (Figure 2).What happens to false notions of reliability when the building power goes out, or the back-up batteries fail, or a poorly trained employee makes a simple operational mistake? Two-thirds of downtime is caused by human error.

The pursuit of reliability ultimately makes corporate America more dependent not on technology, but on their facilities and the people who design, build, and manage them. There is tremendous opportunity for the building owner and manager who can help the corporate client understand, implement, and benefit from a realistic and integrated approach to reliability.

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