Availability has a new meaning. And it doesn't include planned downtime

One of the rarely spoken about aspects of technology is the level of compromise it requires. Most articles tend to focus on benefits. How whatever the innovation is will make life easier, faster or smarter. Instead of the fact that users will have to put up with an irritating side-effect, and will only accept doing so because the overall advantage it brings is so great. The smartphone is probably the greatest example of this concept. Yes, it can make life easier. Yes, it can be everything from a TV to a notebook. But the compromise is that it requires charging sometimes twice a day.

The service equivalent, meanwhile, is probably planned (or scheduled) downtime. Something customers have to endure every so often, and do so because online banking (for example) remains far more convenient than going into a branch, even if the website disappears every so often for routine maintenance.

But today, the winds are changing. As technology improves, consumer expectations move. The compromises people are prepared to make for helpful or exciting innovations begin to disappear as they want more and will accept less inconvenience and delay to get it.

For most industries, this equates to a change in service delivery. Picky, choice-rich, consumers are not noted for their patience when let down. If availability isn't instant, they aren't interested. And brand loyalty is an antiquated concept when competition is so rife in every market.

It means that something businesses had always considered routine is suddenly a big issue for consumers. While planned downtime was once an acceptable excuse for a lack of service (or at the very least a necessary evil), businesses are soon going to have to turn to new backup and support innovations to ensure that the promise of ‘always on’ can actually mean ‘always on’.

Changing expectations

In August 2017, Barclays announced that almost a million of its customers would be without online, mobile and telephone banking services for a weekend. The reason? They are in the process of separating their retail and investment arms, ring-fencing the latter as part of new legislation following the global financial crisis.

It’s not the first instance of this happening. More or less all banks and consumer-dependent businesses with a substantial digital presence perform ‘scheduled maintenance’ from time to time. The difference now is that the more egregious examples of it are starting to hit the news.

Of course, to businesses the process probably sounds fairly reasonable. A bit of disruption for a greater good. Better online services for all.

But look at it from the consumer’s perspective:

You’re doing maintenance, on your systems, to comply with your legislation. But I’m losing out as a result.”

Suddenly, planned downtime doesn’t look like quite such a reasonable prospect.

Even when the eventual aim of it is to safeguard consumer finances, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the average customer has a fairly hard deal in not being able to do so much as check their bank balance, pay an electricity bill or access essential services for a couple of days. And it’s increasingly arguable that businesses who plan downtime should spend more time looking for ways to keep a viable minimum number of their services open. Rather than resting on a ‘planned downtime’ excuse that’s beginning to look a bit ‘computer says no’.

Essential services must remain essential

While the Barclays case is interesting (as well as apt for highlighting the relevancy of this issue) the problem of planned downtime is not just applicable to the business or financial communities.

Any industry, sector or organisation that provides a service that may be deemed ‘essential’ has to start thinking about how technologies can ensure their customers are able to access everything they need to – especially when it’s as simple as isolating one server for backup or maintenance, so that another can keep things going.

Just think of the public sector. NHS Trusts want to offer more services online to reduce the burden on frontline staff. Particularly when the need is as mundane as a repeat prescription or a minor medical query. However, issues around downtime can quite easily lead to a lack of faith in providing online services (if nothing else, WannaCry demonstrated the willingness to castigate the public sector for unavailability of services), so they become far more likely to either stick with offline solutions, or force planned downtime on their users.

Neither scenario is ideal. But soon neither will be necessary.

The NHS, or indeed any large consumer-facing organisation or business, can use emerging solutions that allow vital work to take place, while the frontline stays online. For example, using backup data to sandbox a particular production scenario. Which has the dual benefit of keeping vital systems online, and producing more accurate results than a standard, one-application sandbox that wouldn't take into account the intricacies of an actual live IT network.

This kind of approach to maintenance brings downtime in line with consumer expectations, in that (unless disaster strikes) there won’t be any. But it still ensures that systems are well-kept and fully up-to-date.

The next evolution of availability

As recently as five years ago, we as consumers or businesses would accept or understand unplanned downtime as part of our digital experience. Innovators were trying to do interesting things to make our lives easier. And if that meant a little disruption every now and then, so be it.

But gradually expectations change. Better tech generally breeds more impatience and less willingness to wait for a service. Scheduled downtime starts to make headlines. And, eventually, it becomes an issue which is worth switching providers to avoid.

For businesses, the consumer desire for better and more consistent service has big implications. First among which is a new meaning for availability that doesn't include ‘planned downtime’ within its lexicon. But, as ever, it’s going to need business and public sector leaders to adopt a new evolution in technology to make it a reality.

Mark Adams is Regional Vice President for UK&I at Veeam
Image source: Shutterstock/hafakot