Computing threatens computers: Learning from Heathrow and Gatwick airport IT systems failures.


As i write this blog, two of Britain’s key airports suffer shutdown after a global level computer failure has taken down all airline and support systems rendering the airports at Healthrow and Gatwick effectively back to the stone ages. 2 hours on, the cause of this outage is yet to be identified, much less being resolved. While there is no communication of a cyber attack, the same cannot be ruled out.

British Airways chaos: All flights cancelled at Heathrow and Gatwick after global computer failure

British Airways cancels all Saturday Heathrow, Gatwick flights after outage

An airport and its management involves a set of complex process parameters – most of which is digitized and automated through a network of computers and handheld devices. All of these process form a neat package run in the back end. The back end doesnot literally mean that behind side of the airport – these back ends generally mean a huge gigantic computing complex with thousands and infacts million of servers and computers stacked one on top of another in neat arrays providing endless computing back up to complex systems – government records, health records, public records, hospitals, private organizations, airports, toll bridges, production systems – so on and so forth. These premises are often larger than a football field and lay host to gigantic Pettabytes of computing quantum and power.These are called data centres.

Given the complex algorithms and criticality of the processes in play, a data centre could house upto a million or more computers neatly stacked in form of racks. With the dawn of ubiquitous computing, IoT, M2M sensor networks, data centres are poised for the next big leap. Picture this:

There will be 26.3bn networked devices worldwide by 2020 (up from 16.3bn in 2016).
Global IP traffic will pass 2.3ZB in 2020 up from 1.1ZB in 2016, growing @ 20% CAGR.
Busy hour internet traffic will increase by a factor of 4.6 between 2015 and 2020 growing at 46% CAGR.
Source: CISCO VLSI February 2017.

To compliment such humoungous increase in computing, the data center market is estimated to grow from $36.47bln in 2016 to $90.56bln by 2021, at a CAGR of 19.95%. (Source: Markets&Markets, November 2016)

EMF and EMF Radiation generated by intensive computing environments (such as a data centre) produce harmful effects on IT equipment and in-premise personnel reducing the service reliability, availability and employee productivity. An L4 data centre typically sees an average downtime duration of 83 minutes per year. Interestingly enough, as high as 10% failure modes in data centre environments are unspecified and according to empirical data by Ponemon institute, the average cost of a data centre outage is around $740,357 per year. This data doesnot consider mass losses such as the one due to outages as in Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

From a data centre perspective, there are a host of EMF safety standards such as ICNIRP 1998, EMC 2004/108/EC (European Union), MICE classification of equipment environment, CEFAW (UK, July 2016), EN/BS 61000 4-8, EN55022, EN55011 and ISO/NCRP/HPA. A quick reading gives you a limiting exposure value of magnetic field for equipment (in data centre) to be lesser than 37.5mG. However, in practise the EMF outages in data centres are significantly high – in order of hundreds of mG.

This leads to interference caused by EMF (called as Electro-magnetic interference)
1. Low frequency EMI caused by power sources / cabling and wiring can erase a hard disk or corrupt server database.
2. They are known to cause unexplained data errors and productivity loss due to data errors
3. In data communication, excessive electromagnetic interference (EMI) hinders ability of remote receivers to successfully detect data packets.
4. EMI leads to higher network traffic due to packet retransmissions and network congestions
5. This leads to degradation of transmission quality
6. Personnel exposed to high EMF radiation are faced with multiple electromagnetic sensitivity symptoms leading to loss of man-hours and productivity
7. Logging on and off of terminal equipment
8. Slow down of LAN traffic

These outages show up once a while and are generally not attributed to EMF Radiation – and are generally brushed aside by the support technical staff as one of incidents till such point of time, that a large meltdown of the sorts in Heathrow and Gatwick happens. This is because electromagnetic interferences and its effects on computing environments i.e data centres is not a well understood topic. But this has grave consequences such as the current outage in Heathrow and Gatwick airports. This may be the first of such outages. At the current levels of data centre EMF protection, we see many such outages happening – both in critical (healthcare, insurance, government nodes) and non critical process nodes. Inability to address the EMF radiation issue can lead to huge economic losses in near term horizon.

We provide a simple Define, Measure, Analyze, Implement and Control methodology to rein the issue. We provide solutions to reduce and control EMF radiation outages.


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