Hype Alert: 24x7x365 and Mission Critical

Let me start by ridiculing a horrible buzz phrase. The culprit is "24x7x365." This cotton-candy phrase should have resulted in a nasty ribbing when it slipped out of someone’s mouth by accident, then disappeared forever. Do those who use this phrase really mean to convey a goal of seven consecutive years of uptime? After all, it does mean one day (24 hours), times seven days, times 365 days (one year). It’s a laudable target, but I doubt that’s the intent.

That this silly phrase persists is an example of the unthinking acceptance and grotesque overuse of the "mission critical" concept these days. Having dispensed with 24x7x365, I’d like to throw cold water on mission critical, too.

Mission critical is the scare-the-pants-off-you phrase vendors sometimes use to panic IT buyers into believing their whole company’s going to go out of business if the system is down for 10 minutes on the Saturday night before Easter.

I don’t see much out there right now, especially in the Windows NT world, that’s truly mission critical -- despite the claims.

The market analyst firm IDC (www.idc.com) recently published research affirming popular wisdom about platform deployments. Simply put, it goes like this: Linux = Web servers and infrastructures; NT = collaborative environments; and Unix = applications previously reserved for mainframes.

So Windows NT -- and by extension Windows 2000 -- is in heavy use for e-mail and file serving. I have seen some vendors go so far as to label e-mail mission critical. This is a stretch.

Do you know a business that was forced to declare bankruptcy because e-mail was offline for an hour? Send me an e-mail, because ENT would be eager to cover this amazingly rare company meltdown. I haven’t seen a case like this yet, and I don’t expect to be overwhelmed by a flood of your e-mail.

Yes, it’s bad when the e-mail server goes out. It’s embarrassing, it’s annoying, it causes headaches, it hampers productivity. But last I heard, most companies hadn’t scrapped their traditional telephones yet, meaning an e-mail outage doesn’t cut employees off from the rest of the world. An offline e-mail server may give employees a good excuse to stop doing work and start gabbing, but in a lot of cases there are other productive things they could be doing with the time.

A buzzword spin-off invented to match this reality -- an application that causes serious, but not crippling problems when it goes down -- is "business critical." Is it so wrong to just say that e-mail is important and that it’s bad when it goes down? Why must everything be "critical."

Much of the noise about mission critical comes in relation to e-commerce business models. This usually accompanies another annoying phrase, that the competition is "just a mouse click away." Again, the situation is often not as urgent as it’s made out to be.

Take airline tickets. In theory, the airline ticket buyer should be one of the toughest customers to hold. There are many airlines, and most of them have comparable online ticketing capabilities. If an airline’s online ordering system loses transactions, or is slow, customers could jump to a competitor.

In practice, things aren’t nearly so pressing. Many online consumers are willing to put up with a spotty system that dumps their entry halfway through for the flexibility of playing around with departure and arrival times. A follow-up phone call to double check that a flight is actually booked isn’t a huge imposition.

With the exception of pure breed dot-coms, e-commerce for the most part is supplementary to traditional business approaches. Most consumers don’t expect flawless Web site services from corporate sites yet. My suspicion is that consumers appreciate the power they get from the increased amount of information they can typically access from an online system. Consumers can hit the update button to check the price for a new flight departure time as many times as they want. Even the nicest airline call-center employee can get testy when asked to try a dozen different flight combinations. For now, this convenience outweighs demands for completely dependable online commerce systems.

This is the sloppy reality that Microsoft is entering with its Windows 2000 Datacenter Server, slated to ship this summer.

Microsoft, also adopting the hyper rhetoric, is already throwing around the term "mission critical" with abandon in relation to its Datacenter Server. The reality is Microsoft won’t be there yet with Datacenter Server. The operating system will represent Microsoft’s most concerted attempt at stability and reliability in an operating environment, and it will probably be more stable and reliable than any previous Microsoft environment.

Microsoft doesn’t have any high-profile mission critical failures because the IT community as a whole doesn’t trust Windows with its most important assets. There are a smattering of enterprises that keep essential systems on Windows, but my guess is that you know most of their names. They have very tight arrangements with Microsoft that include extensive configuration, support, and training help from Redmond. In exchange, they sign their stories over to Microsoft’s marketing people, who trumpet details of the configurations far and wide.

None of this is to discount the real requirements for some truly key business systems. There are financial services firms out there whose systems lose real money when they go down. Nor am I trying to say that efforts to make computer systems run all the time aren’t good and important goals. What I'm asking for a little perspective, and at least a tip of the hat to reality. Overusing terms such as "mission critical" takes away from, and numbs us to, those rare systems that actually fit the description.