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Computer glitch? Admit it, there's no such thing

Update on July 9: Reuters is reporting that yesterday’s New York Stock Exchange computer outage was caused by a software update. According to Reuters, a spokeswoman for the NYSE said the root cause was a “configuration issue.”

Original blog post on July 8: Today was a rough one for enterprise IT. The New York Stock Exchange came to a screeching halt. United Airlines was directed by the FAA to halt all flights systemwide. And the Wall Street Journal’s website was down for much of the day. Suffice it to say that Wednesday, July 8, 2015 will not soon be forgotten.

United’s woes were blamed on a bad router. We’ll save the discussion of hardware and communications redundancy for another day. As of this writing, no reason for the Journal’s outage had been made public.

And then there is the NYSE. Turn on any news program or read about it online and you’ll learn what happened: a computer glitch. I can’t think of anything more annoying. Or more wrong. Let’s be very clear about this one thing: There is no such thing as a computer glitch.

Systems go down for only three reasons. First is hardware failure. We all understand that. Routers fail, servers fail, a drive crashes, the power goes out, squirrels chew through power or communications lines, lightning strikes, or something else. Redundancy should reduce the vast majority of incidents to a momentary blip during a cutover.

Second is sabotage, hacking, denial-of-service attacks, or some other deliberate action. No further explanation needed.

Third is that glitch. The problem is that glitches don’t exist. They never have. And the general news media doesn’t understand that. Computers or devices are very stupid, they can do only what they are instructed to do. You and I have a word for those instructions — software. If the software is poorly written, fails to test for all conditions, has security holes, contains faulty logic, or was installed or configured incorrectly, the program and whatever hardware it’s running on may behave in an unexpected manner or produce undesirable results. I don’t want to say “wrong” or “erroneous” results, because the software is functioning exactly as written.

It doesn’t have to be servers or networks. My DLSR cameras have been known occasionally to perform in a way that defies explanation. But, then along comes a firmware update, and all is well. Until the next time.

What’s your take on glitches? Share your opinion; we’d like to hear from you.