Sorry to rain on your 'perfect storm' parade

I realise that summer is basically over, but I didn't realize the weather in the technology industry had gotten so bad.

When its peer-to-peer phone service went down a few weeks ago, a senior Skype executive blamed it on a "perfect storm" of exceptionally high traffic through the service at the same time as the Windows Update process led to a shortage of supernodes in the service's peer-to-peer network. Earlier this year, research analyst John Spooner described the looming price competition with Intel and the difficulties of integrating its purchase of ATI as "AMD's perfect storm." Maybe the whole thing got going even earlier than that, when Harvard University lecturer and author David Collis looked at the confluence of the Internet bubble bursting, the recession and the maturation of technology products and dubbed it the perfect IT storm. These are just three examples, but I seem to hear this kind of thing at nearly every other press conference I attend. Sebastian Junger, who wrote The Perfect Storm exactly 10 years ago, should be getting some extra royalties.

The real perfect storm, of course, refers to an event in 1991 that devastated the North Atlantic. It combined a low-pressure area southeast of Nova Scotia with cool, dry air moving into the storm from the North and a dying hurricane, Grace, which delivered immeasurable tropical energy. In the IT industry, executives tend to invoke the perfect storm as a way of discussing market opportunities. They might cite the rising volumes of information swamping the enterprise, for example, along with the pressure to remain competitive in an ever-more difficult market. They might also throw in the growing problem of malware, or perhaps the bandwidth pressures hitting so many corporate networks.

Although they tend to suggest that these kind of elements create a perfect storm of some kind that's germane to their particular industry niche, they usually follow up by explaining how purchasing their products or services can ward it off. The message is not only that bad things come in threes, but that they can be fended off if only you shell out for a better umbrella.

You could make the case, of course, that IT departments - and even the department heads who use technology - are already hanging on in the midst of these perfect storms every day. Almost any major business challenge or problem can be stirred up into a perfect storm. Take something as simple as a printer jam: It's not just a case of getting up from your chair and yanking something out of a machine.

This is an event that happens as companies everywhere try to close Canada's horrifying (at least to some) productivity gap vis-a-vis the United States. Meanwhile, the tendency to print out everything we do online is contributing to major costs as well as harming our environment. Consider the privacy issues associated with half-printed documents that get left out for anyone to read and voila! You've got yourself a perfect storm!

As vendors try to whip up a sense of urgency through these kinds of metaphors, users should behave the way people would in the event of a real perfect storm. Is there real potential for catastrophe, or is there anything faulty about this forecast? What would the impact of recovering from such an event be, and how prepared are you? What's being offered by the company predicting the cataclysm may be helpful, but will it help completely avoid it? There's the tricky one. As customers inevitably discover, the storm may be perfect, but the products to cope are often not.

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Shane Schick
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