Trends can predict a telecommunications disaster

As technology continues to change rapidly, the type, quality and quantity of telecommunications required are diverse, and providing disaster recovery becomes a critical responsibility for managers. In planning for disaster recovery, responsible network professionals must incorporate cabling-plant considerations into their business continuation plans. Patterns and trends in the telecommunications industry may help predict a telecommunications outage. If we determine what the reasons are for these

Benjamin W. Tartalia

BWT Associates

As technology continues to change rapidly, the type, quality and quantity of telecommunications required are diverse, and providing disaster recovery becomes a critical responsibility for managers. In planning for disaster recovery, responsible network professionals must incorporate cabling-plant considerations into their business continuation plans. Patterns and trends in the telecommunications industry may help predict a telecommunications outage. If we determine what the reasons are for these trends, we may be able to avoid or mitigate future losses. I believe there are thirteen clearly identifiable threatening trends:

Dependency on telecommunications

Downsizing

Outsourcing

Number of alternatives

Complexity of the network

Computer viruses

Globalization

Half-life of knowledge

More single-points-of-failure

Physical security vulnerabilities

Hackers

Terrorism/sabotage

Frequency and severity of incidents.

The reliability of telecommunications is taken for granted. If the telephone, computer, fax and cellular phone break down, someone fixes them quickly. What is being overlooked, however, is the rate at which we are becoming telecommunications-dependent.

Management may be unaware of how dependent the organization has become on telecommunications. What used to be an easily corrected inconvenience may now be a critical element in the survival of the organization.

Each organization has a certain amount of time before a telecommunications outage can cause irreversible damage. The vulnerabilities, exposure and alternatives for each company are different. To limit exposure to a telecommunications disaster, company executives and network managers should determine what their company`s specific exposure is; for example, keeping the 800-exchange telephone service active for orders to be received, or getting a telephone line working for stock trading or transmitting critical information. We should continually review and redefine telecommunications dependency and ensure that back-up or recovery plans are in place.

Downsizing and outsourcing

Another area that can lead to disastrous losses is downsizing. The problem with downsizing is that it is directed from the top down, with personnel cuts made from the bottom up. The first people to go are service-related employees involved with the daily operations of the company. Their duties are assumed by executives or spread among remaining employees.

In fact, many organizations that have not looked at staffing levels in five years will likely have 10% to 30% more staff than needed. However, downsizing will probably result in an overworked staff, a reduction in the collective experience base in each department, and less time for exchange of information. Activity increases while effectiveness decreases.

On the plus side, downsizing saves on the bottom line in cash and staffing, and many services can be subcontracted.

Faced with downsizing, management may decide to outsource or subcontract appropriate activities. In reality, however, outsourced activities reflect organizational weaknesses for which resources are not available. To be effective, outsourcing or subcontracting requires an adequate core of organizational expertise to minimize exposure to problems.

Examples of outsourced telecommunications work include moves, installations and changes; consulting for network services; and cable-management-database creation and maintenance. Project implementation may be passed from the outsourcing company to another subcontractor; therefore, an organization can lose control unless an in-house manager is assigned to monitor the day-to-day outsourced activities.

Network alternatives

Discussions regarding media alternatives used to be centered on whether to use shielded or unshielded copper cable, but these alternatives have mushroomed to include fiber, microwave, cable TV, coaxial cable, wireless, cellular and satellite. In addition, millions of dollars are spent each year implementing cable-management systems to track these different cabling media. It has been estimated that cable records degrade 1% to 2% per week, which means that the cable-management database, if not maintained, could be meaningless in two years.

The number, variations, range and size of networks contribute to the growing complexity of telecommunications systems. The increasing trend toward decentralization and distributed computing increases the difficulty of maintaining accurate records of what the network looks like and where the various assets are located.

Viruses and globalization

Also degrading the files is the threat of computer viruses. The number of viruses has increased because more people are using computers. Although software "vaccines" for various viruses can prevent infection, the best prevention is to educate users to follow basic computer security procedures, such as:

Do not accept bootlegged software.

Refrain from downloading information from bulletin boards.

Check any data disks for viruses prior to use.

As telecommunications applications are used worldwide in their many forms--voice, fax, videoconferencing, personal communication systems or even a multifunction wrist communicator--we are experiencing instant communications globally; for example, in the Gulf War, communication centers literally appeared overnight.

With all these advances in telecommunications technology, however, there is a downside: the half-life of knowledge. This term refers to the usefulness of what was learned in the past; for example, the knowledge of an engineer graduating from college is said to have only a 50% usefulness five years later. In another five years, the knowledge is only 25% of its base value. In 15 years after the degree, it has a value of 12.5%. Applying that concept to telecommunications, some skills and education have a half-life of six months or less. Indeed, some technical knowledge can become obsolete overnight. Constant re-education is the answer to this trend.

Ironically, advances in telecommunications technology have also created new exposures to what is known as single-points-of-failure (SPF). An SPF is a "known or unknown critical location in a system that exposes the system to less functionality." If the system fails at such a point, causing a significant loss in terms of life, property or organizational resources, we call it a disaster.

The trend of new and more SPFs is accelerating at an alarming rate. One example is the increased use of fiber-optic cable, which allows thousands of bits of information and conversations to be transferred over a single strand of glass. If the single strand is cut, the increased exposure is that thousands of people are affected instead of dozens, as with older technologies.

Physical security

Network failure can also come from human intervention. Security measures are an important part of preventing telecommunications disasters. As downsizing has decreased the number of security personnel, management has increased the use of technology for security protection. Increased reliance on technology, however, is on a collision course with the new electronic-monitoring laws. At the same time that security staff is being cut, management is being warned about the use of electronics to monitor their premises, lest they violate employee rights. Indeed, management may be held responsible if the same employee who cannot be watched on closed-circuit television is injured because of a lack of surveillance.

Hackers are another security problem, and they are continually improving their skills. A sophisticated hacker could bring down an entire central office network, reroute financial information from one bank to another, or redirect a corporation`s direct inward lines to a competitor`s location.

Additional security problems are telecommunications terrorism and sabotage, which are no longer limited to foreign countries. The trend is toward more-frequent and severe incidents. The threat is real, proven and growing. Unless proper disaster-recovery prevention and planning programs are put in place, I predict that the stage is being set for telecommunications failures of immense proportions.

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