Guest Post: Why this week’s airport IT meltdown was unacceptable

Michael Allen, vice-president of APM at Compuware, gives us his take on the IT problems experienced at UK airports this week after being caught up in the chaos at Heathrow  

I got caught up in the chaos at Heathrow caused by a border force IT glitch this week. It was crazy.

Quite simply it’s not acceptable for IT problems to cause this level of pain. IT systems have become more complex in recent years and it seems this complexity is increasingly leading to problems like this.

IT teams should have the processes, techniques and tools in place to proactively avoid these problems and be equipped to deal with unexpected IT problems before they impact their users.

They should be able to see potential problems bubbling up and deal with them before it gets to the point it did this week where thousands of us were moving at a foot a minute in the passport control queue.

I travel around Europe and the world to help organisations, big and small, make their IT systems better, faster and more resilient to faults.

So it was quite ironic to find myself stranded here at Heathrow with fellow passengers on my way back into the UK because there is a problem with border control IT systems.

We were stuck like thousands of IT transactions not able to get through the system. This is a vivid reminder of what I see every day in my job.

No matter what business you are in, you are dependent on IT, hence you are in the IT business nowadays – even if your business is as simple as sending people home.

We have all seen how the internet and more recently mobile has transformed the way we interact daily with IT. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Less visible to most of us there has been a huge transformation in back-end IT systems.

Clearly there has been some unexpected transformation with UK immigration systems.

My guess is that as their IT systems have become more complex over the last decade, their ability to prevent or deal with these types of problems has decreased.

However, complexity in IT systems isn’t an excuse. Quite simply, there is no excuse for thousands of passengers having to wait hours to get through passport control.

Luckily for us, some of the more advanced IT organisations have now understood that performance and availability are things you need to build into your application, in the same way car manufacturers built in safety as it’s what we all expect.

Rather than being an afterthought for your IT systems once you run them, this needs to be built in from the start. In IT this is what we call Proactive Performance Engineering.

Exponential complexity in IT is the problem, but it can’t be the excuse. How do you tame the exponential complexity of IT systems?

How do you deal with the fact that you will not be able to predict when the fault that sees thousands of us getting increasingly angry at Heathrow will happen. Well, you need to be prepared for the unprepared and the unexpected.

This is what the most advanced of the advanced IT organisations do.

You need to equip your IT with sufficient intelligence gathering power so while your systems might not yet be able to heal themselves automatically quite yet, you are given sufficient notice and insights when things start to go bad so you know before your users do.

This then gives you the power to hone in on where the problem is in your incredibly complex IT environment and sort out the problem before it brings everything to a standstill.

There are new generation Application Performance Management methodologies, techniques and solutions that can enable IT to effectively and quickly act before end users find out.

I wish these were part of the new norm for everybody in IT.

If organisations don’t realise that IT has the potential to cripple them and prepare them for the unexpected, we’ll see more and more problems like this; the impact of which will go on for years.

Just ask the international visitors at Heathrow this week, many of whom have very negative impression of the UK now.

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