Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Creeping Business Dependency

People are slowly waking up to the fact that we have created yet another single point of failure into our business ecosystem. It seems that businesses have gradually made themselves dependent on Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and satellite navigation (satnav). So we are now starting to hear doom-and-gloom stories about the dire economic consequences of any interruption to the service, which could apparently be caused by anything from cyberterrorism (Daily Mail 8 March 2011) to solar flares (Daily Mail 21 Sept 2010).

Those with long memories may recall the millennium bug scare, which postulated that widespread computer error might result in total economic collapse when the date went from 99 to 00. Many companies took the opportunity to carry out a long overdue inventory of their software programs, and decommissioned a fair amount of obsolete code, as well as reviewing their disaster recovery procedures; even though the scare was probably exaggerated, some useful work was done. (I myself picked up some contract work in this area, so I can't complain.)

The Royal Academy of Engineering has just issued a report on Global Navigation Space Systems, which takes a more balanced view of the subject than the Daily Mail, but still warns of the danger of over-reliance on satellite navigation [Report (pdf), Press Release].

Chairman of the RAoE working group, Dr Martyn Thomas, told the BBC:
"We're not saying that the sky is about to fall in; we're not saying there's a calamity around the corner. What we're saying is that there is a growing interdependence between systems that people think are backing each other up. And it might well be that if a number these systems fail simultaneously, it will cause commercial damage or just conceivably loss of life. This is wholly avoidable." [BBC News 8 March 2011]

Maybe this does sound pretty speculative (as @martinjmurray complains). Nonetheless it may be a good idea for any business that has gradually become dependent on this or any other technology to check out the possible risks.

From an architectural point of view, what I find most interesting about this situation is the tendency for critical business dependencies (and the associated risks) to emerge, as a particular technology migrates unobtrusively from marginal use to core business use.

Another example of a creeping business dependency is the extent to which Google has now inserted itself into the relationship between any business and its customers. If a business offends Google in some way, and consequently disappears from Google search, this will have serious business consequences. (BMW disappeared from Google for three days in 2006 - see my post BMW Search Requests). And yet it's still rare to see Google shown as a business-critical service partner in business architecture or business process diagrams.

If we think of an architecture in terms of a set of dependencies, we can distinguish between a centrally planned architecture, in which the dependencies and their implications are understood from the outset, and an emergent defacto architecture, in which unanticipated dependencies and risks can be created by a quantity of uncontrolled activity. In a planned world, all innovation must be controlled to prevent emergent risk; in an evolving world, innovation (such as the use of Google or GPS) can be encouraged provided that there is a robust mechanism to detect and manage emerging risks.

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