Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Lean and Mean

Modern business runs totally on the "lean and mean" model, JIT manufacturing as an example. This reduces inventories and maximizes profits -- a good thing. But, when it comes to infrastructrure, it may not be the right thing to do. The power outage in the north-east is a good example. The system is running right at capacity, no redundancy, a couple of stations go down and the whole thing dominoes. Following which, gas prices go up 20%, because a half dozen refineries in the blacked-out areas missed a day of production. The wild fluctuation we see in gas prices says the same thing to me, too lean and mean -- no resiliency against minor perturbations.

Vernor Vinge wrote two great sci-fi novels recently, "A Fire on the Deep" and "A Deepness in the Sky". I preferred the second one. One compelling idea he presented was that advanced planetary civilizations never make it more than around 10,000 years. They reach a point of precarious complexity such that a single event causes all the systems to come crashing down, with an ensuing mass die-off. When you see the brittleness of the majority of the computing systems that increasingly run our world, it definitely makes you think.

So, what to do? Certainly government regulation of infrastructure systems is one way to go, but government systems are surely about as far opposite of "lean and mean" as you can go. ("Fat and dumb" maybe?). Maybe a more Darwinian approach would be to slap massive fines (prefiled class action suits) on infrastructure companies in the event of outages or major or persistent SLA violations.

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