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Reality Check

January 1999

Of Bugs And Men


Editors Note: It is with great pleasure that I welcome Robert Vahid Hashemian to the editorial staff of Internet Telephony magazine. As some of you may remember, Roberts Reality Check column appeared in CTI magazine from May 1997 to March 1998. His always insightful, sometimes infuriating commentaries may have ruffled a few feathers in the past, but one thing is for certain: He provides us with a healthy does of reality every time. Robert currently holds the position of Webmaster for TMCnet your online resource for CTI, Internet telephony, and call center technology. He can be reached at rhashemian@tmcnet.com.

Bugs here, bugs there, bugs everywhere. If you think this is yet another column bashing Microsoft, you would be right. Well, sort of. Fact of the matter is, I have now been trained to accept the bugs in Microsoft products and move on with my life. Every time I get a BSOD (Blue/Black Screen of Death) on my PC or a service crash in one of our NT-based servers, I just mutter a few curses and proceed to the obligatory reboot, which thankfully seems to fix the problems most of time. As an aside, I am actually amazed that Microsoft doesnt offer the reboot capability as a free-standing utility from which they could draw royalties (i.e., every time you reboot your PC, you pay a $100 support fee to Microsoft).

But the problem goes deeper than just Windows crashing, users bashing, and managers thrashing the MIS department. Have you noticed that lately just about any technology you put your finger on has some kind of serious bug associated with it? It seems that our desensitization toward software bugs has prompted other vendors to become lax in their pursuit of quality products. It is no longer important how good the quality of the product is versus the competition, but rather how well the support level of the company is gauged vis-a-vis the other vendor.

This unfortunate reality became painfully evident during the most recent frame-relay outage in our office. For a period of six hours, we were shut out of the Internet as our Internet Service Providers (ISP) so-called senior engineers fumbled about their Frame Relay Access Devices (FRADs), routers, and switches to fix the problem. No e-mail. No Internet. No access. Im talking peak business hours here, not early Sunday morning. Wait a minutewhats that? The sound you just heard was the palpitating heart of yet another poor soul - like me - in charge of a companys communications. Another who recognizes that sinking feeling of sitting like the proverbial duck in the crosshairs while an ISP is playing Russian roulette with your job and reputation.

I have to admit that during this aggravating experience, our ISP gave us outstanding phone support, being courteous and patient each time I called to give them a piece of my mind. The irony of this situation was that just two days prior to this disaster I had signed a new SLA (Service Level Agreement) guaranteeing us 100-percent circuit uptime. The SLA had a clause that would give us the right to collect a certain amount of money from the ISP proportionate to the blackout duration. How could this possibly calm me down when all I cared about was to have my service back up?

In desperation, I finally called our ISPs sales representative and pleaded with him to have their engineers reboot the unruly routers and switches, explaining that rebooting has a magical effect on our systems when they act up. Well, whatever they did, the service came back online later that day - too late for many who had already packed up and gone home. This was not the only outage we had, but certainly the most disastrous by far. A couple of weeks later I received a call from my sales representative asking whether he could give my name as a reference to another potential customer. Facetiously, I asked him whether he wanted me to be truthful with the guy, to which he replied, I know we are not perfect, but I think you would agree that our support is good. Thats when it hit me. In this fast-paced, merger and acquisition-oriented, market share-crazed world of ours, quality is no longer important. Its the service that counts.

Even some age-old, reliable products are showing signs of breakdown. Take electricity as an example. Up until last year I hardly remember power outages in our building. Now power outages are a common occurrence. The slightest drop of rain, the mildest breeze, or even a falling leaf (it seems) can take out the entire grid and it remains out for hours. We endured so many power outages this year (causing irreparable damage to our systems) that we had to spend tens of thousands of dollars upgrading our UPS systems. Of course, who knows if the UPS systems are not buggy themselves.

Telephone service? Same story. At times, certain area codes inexplicably become unavailable. Intermittent outages are blamed on new switches installed by our local carriers. Other outages are caused by a competitive carrier unknowingly digging into the ground and severing communication cables. And still other failures are attributed to inexperienced technicians and engineers tweaking switch settings without proper supervision.

In this magazine we cover a lot of companies and products that enable us to be more effective by reducing overhead and enhancing our capabilities. We look forward to a future that will afford us instant and comprehensive communication with anyone, anytime, anywhere. However, sometimes we forget to consider that all of these technologies are as good as the weakest link in the system - the one with the most bugs - whether they are software, hardware, procedural, or otherwise. Let us send a message to the carriers, providers, and manufacturers: Please dont shower us with service alone. What we are starved for is quality.

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