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TechWatch: Coping with Unreliability

On November 29, I went to the post office to pick up IBTE mail. There was a familiar envelope from our web hosting service and I expected to find the typical monthly bill. Instead, on what looked like a bill, was the statement:

“Thank you for your time as our customer, allowing us to host your web site. We have received your request to disconnect.”

No such request had been made.

So my next task was to call “customer service.” I hesitate to call it “service” because in late September I waited two and one half hours on hold listening to music when calling for help. I finally gave up without ever talking with a person.

I was more fortunate the second time. A representative came on the line after only about 20 minutes of waiting. Indeed our service was to be disconnected on Saturday, December 1. When I explained that I had not requested this disconnect I was given an even more surprising reply. The service was being disconnected because the company was in bankruptcy, and they would no longer be providing this service. I had two days to get all of the files moved to another service provider. I was thankful I picked up the envelope the day it arrived!

IBTE is a virtual organization, and the electronic center is at the heart of how we interact with others. We depend on our web site to inform people about what we are doing and to receive requests for Ethix. It is also the response center for Forum questions, letters, etc. In a typical month, ten to forty thousand visitors come to the site from every continent around the world. We have just laid out plans to make the site more interactive with more frequent updates, conversation, and new features.

There are several observations about this experience that have much broader implications.

First, we are not alone. On November 30 a judge said bankrupt Excite@Home could shut its high speed cable Internet service affecting more than four million subscribers. The tech crash is usually discussed in terms of losses to employees and shareholders. What we are seeing now is an incredible impact on customers, made more difficult because electronic interaction is no longer an “add on” but is the only way many companies do business. For example, we’ve seen this in calling the airlines for a reservation. I was recently told to call back, since their computers were down and there was no way to process a reservation without the computer system. There is an added dimension to this problem if the backbone becomes the target of terrorist attacks. I am not going to tackle that subject here, but it is another point of vulnerability.

Second, we should have seen it coming. Our Internet web hosting started with a small company in Seattle. The people were knowledgeable and the service was excellent when we signed up two years ago. But about a year ago, our bill came from another company in another city. That was the first sign of change. Then we started noticing some of our access statistics on the web reports were getting lost. Checking the web access report in late September, I noticed that the statistics that had been there earlier in the month had suddenly disappeared. Further and more seriously, we noticed a significant drop in contact requests that came to us from the site. We attributed this to the tragedy of September 11, but then I tried going to our site and sending a message to myself. It didn’t get through. This led to the attempts to call customer service. This last problem was fixed with a patch from our web implementer but our hosting site never responded to e-mail or calls.

At this point I wrote a letter to the CEO of the company providing the service, explaining what had been going on. I suggested their poor customer service may be a good basis for a future column in Ethix. It had been my experience that letters to customer service often went unanswered, but letters to the CEO usually generated a response. No response. I later learned he had been dismissed about this time.

I looked for alternatives. I received a brochure advertising web hosting service in early November and considered switching. To check it out, I called customer service rather than sales. After waiting a half hour on the line, I decided this vendor was not the answer either. So, in spite of the problems, I foolishly decided to ride it out.

My mother tells me that at the early stages of electric power in homes, the power was never something they could depend on. It was standard procedure to have kerosene lamps and candles ready for when the power went out. You would never commit your home or your business to the expectation of reliable power. We have rapidly passed this point in computing. Today, businesses have electronic files and electronic communication for which there is no paper backup. Large companies can build and manage their own infrastructure and this can work to a point. It is usually more expensive to build something independently than to purchase it from others. So all companies depend on third party software and/or services to keep their electronic data available.

Third, we must think carefully about the selection of a third party supplier. Whether for a software package or a vital service, either can play a critical role in the operation of your company. Almost everyone first thinks of finding such a package or service that meets the specs of the business. A second factor is cost. Too many businesses stop here, but we must go way beyond these two issues. Some other obvious factors involve support capability of the supplier, maintenance and support costs, and the financial viability of the supplier (whether in surviving or in keeping up with technology).

I recently visited Richard Dance, the president and founder of Soft Resources, a company that specializes in helping people purchase software to meet their needs. They have no software of their own to push which makes them an unbiased third party for this important transaction. I was impressed with the careful thinking they have done about the issue of software selection. Their website (www.softresources.com) contains a wealth of information about selecting software.

Of particular interest are two links from the home page. One, entitled “12 deadly mistakes of Software Selection” discusses in more detail how quickly a company can get in trouble selecting software based only on capability and price. The second key link is called “Software pricing and implementation costs.” There are some excellent guidelines for thinking through lifecycle costs of purchased software that go well beyond the purchase price. One critical factor they discuss is the value of a financially viable vendor. The effort to build a solution around a vendor supplied software package requires a long term commitment to realize the benefits of the solution. This needs to be a consideration at the outset.

I believe similar lists would apply not just to purchased software but to any vendor service (such as web hosting and high speed remote access).

There is one more difficulty here. A reliable, quality vendor today can be on the brink of financial disaster tomorrow in this fast changing economy. It is not enough to use such a strategy to select the vendor of choice. It is necessary to monitor this vendor also. Lucent Technologies and Excite@Home are two examples of companies whose fortunes have changed dramatically in the past year. Even outside the tech sector we have watched Enron, the energy company, drop in stock price from $80 to $.26 since the beginning of the year. So the economy, management factors, and external events all play a role in the success of the company. These issues are amplified in the tech sector because of the rapidly changing technology.

We are not at the point of having a stable tech backbone. Using technology and service from others is necessary for most businesses, but comes with the cost of unplugging should fortunes turn for your business partners and suppliers. When this happens, their employees and shareholders will be impacted but so will their customers. It is time we raise our consideration of this issue as we become more dependent on third parties in our electronic way of life.

Is there somebody at fault here? Of course, the company hosting our website lacked integrity in the way our service was dropped. Further, as service that people and businesses depend on gets shut down it creates a huge problem for customers.

Most of us, however, would not want to see the government get into the act on regulation like they did with other infrastructure areas in the past such as roads, telephones and electric power. This would simply move too slowly and cost too much. Rather, it calls for everyone who runs a business to understand the risk/reward tradeoff between buying or building a service. And when buying seems to be the right answer, which is generally true, a level of care in the original selection like the software selection process, is necessary. It is also necessary to create a level of vigilance in monitoring the capability of key suppliers after the selection as well.

We will likely not get any type of stability in the technical capability of the marketplace, nor will we expect a level of stability in the economic fortunes of the tech sector. So the level of care for the business must become a way of life for business.

Postscript: As I write this column, our site has not been completely transferred, but it is still operating in the old environment. We may make the transition without being down. We apologize to those whose e-mails to us went unanswered over the past months. We hope to be in a more reliable position soon.

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Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.

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