Murphy’s Law Reigns Supreme: Designing for Failures

drawing of explosive clouds in place of a persons head wearing a grey sweater

Jun 15, 2022 by Leah Weisman

I’ve been in IT for the better part of two decades. In that time, I’ve seen all manner of poor decisions, extremely bad luck, or a whopping combination of both. So, when I had my home built and I set up my office, I also got a 350 VA UPS and set it right next to my desk.

My thoroughly modern home has Ground Fault and Arc Fault Circuit Breakers. If you aren’t familiar with the electrical terms, ground fault detects and stops a shorter path from becoming ground (like you dropping an electrical thing in water) and Arc Fault detects and stops arcs from happening, such as driving a screw through a wire. But, I have seen enough situations in my professional life that I have a healthy distrust of a building’s main power infrastructure, so setting up that UPS in my office was one of the first things I did. Most of you are probably nodding along – yes, all this makes sense.

My home also, however, has two four-legged creatures.

While I was out of the room, one of them knocked an entire cup of coffee off my desk right into the UPS.  The power was out in that room when I returned. Apparently, the circuit breaker detected the water hitting the UPS and immediately tripped. Hurray! My main, well designed and expensive infrastructure did exactly what it was supposed to do and failed safe, preventing a potential disaster!

But I was hearing that all-too-familiar “beep beep beep”. My $75 UPS immediately jumped into action and switched to battery power, as it is programmed to do. So now the main power to the room is off to protect against electrical dangers, but the UPS is still running while it’s literally filled to the brim with coffee. Not the best scenario.

Let’s all take a quiet moment to honor my fallen UPS.

This is a perfect example of what we deal with in IT every day. We build beautiful networks with redundant cores and failover, only to have it taken down by an end user plugging a $40 D-Link switch into both cores. We build big clusters with highly available everything, only to have an end user copy their whole MP3 collection to the file server and fill the drives up. We survey and set up perfect wireless solutions, only to have an end user bring in a home router because “they needed more ports” and cause massive interference. We lock down end user devices extremely well so they can’t get into anything wrong, only to have someone bring in their personal computer, loaded with malware, and plug it into the network.

As you’re designing your environment, think through every way in which something can destroy your architectures: liquid spills, end users, acts of God, cyber attacks. My new UPS will be secured up under my desk, with plugs facing DOWN — rather than sitting on the ground, plugs up, waiting for ANYTHING to fall in.  Learn by experience.

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