Major IT systems failures leave companies with angry customers, big bills and damaged reputations. In 2017, three of the world's major airlines suffered separate data center outages that forced them to delay or cancel flights and left passengers stranded at airports around the world. In the most severe cases, fixing these issues and compensating customers can cost the affected company upward of $100 million.

It isn't just airlines that have been affected. Banks, mobile telephone networks and internet service providers have all suffered significant outages linked to problems with their IT infrastructure. The root causes of these incidents can range from the sinister — carefully coordinated cyberattacks — to the mundane. Power and data connections to major IT facilities have been damaged by bad weather, car accidents and even rodents.

COLLECTOR'S ITEM: DHL is piloting a Smart Locker program in India.

The scale, density and complexity of modern data centers can compound problems when they occur. One major European web-hosting service suffered a significant outage last year when water leaking from a custom cooling system damaged servers in an adjacent rack. Big data centers are power-hungry places, with plenty of potential for serious damage when things go wrong. In 2013, construction of the U.S. National Security Agency's giant new data center in Bluffdale, Utah, was delayed by a number of "arc flash" events that damaged power equipment during commissioning, for example.

In general, however, modern IT equipment achieves very high levels of reliability. When a facility contains thousands, or even tens of thousands, of individual computers, however, minor problems like failed hard drives or overheating processors are likely to be everyday occurrences.

For companies that operate, or rely upon, critical technology infrastructure, the aim is to avoid fire-fighting, either literal or metaphorical, as much as possible. Modern systems are designed on the assumption that components will inevitably fail, with multiple layers of redundancy to limit or eliminate the resulting disruption. Changes in technology make this approach to reliability easier than it once was. Virtualization systems, for example, allow companies to switch tasks quickly between individual servers, and modern databases include “hot backup” capabilities that keep a continual record of additions and changes.

Part and parcel

Systems that go wrong still need to be fixed, however, and the technology industry is always looking for ways to make service and repair activities run as smoothly and seamlessly as possible. A critical element of that process is the delivery of the right replacement components.

According to Leonard Aerts, Chief Customer Officer, DHL Service Logistics, the industry's emphasis on overall system robustness is leading it to prioritize visibility and consistency over absolute speed in service logistics. "In recent years, we've seen a reduction in demand for same-day deliveries from our technology customers," he says. "Now customers are more likely to ask for more cost-effective next-day services, but they need absolute assurance that the shipment is going to arrive when expected."

As in so many other B2B environments, Aerts notes, customer expectations are also shaped by their experience as consumers. Ride-hailing services like Uber, for example, show the real-time location of the requested vehicle as it approaches. DHL now offers similar capabilities for mission-critical shipments, with tracking systems that provide real-time visibility to urgent shipments and update expected arrival times based on vehicle GPS data and current traffic information. That data is made available to customers and service engineers through a dedicated app, so they know exactly when to expect a shipment and can be alerted to its imminent arrival.

The most useful service parts are those that have already arrived. In India, DHL is piloting an innovative approach that makes that possible. Smart Lockers work in the same way as the automated parcel collection points used by consumers for e-commerce deliveries. Located on the campuses of major data centers and similar facilities, they allow equipment suppliers to pre-position an inventory of commonly used replacement parts. On-site service engineers can access the components they need with a secure one-time passcode, and the system works seamlessly behind the scenes to handle billing and replenishment orders.

Into reverse

Service operations don't end once the broken asset is back up and running. Technology vendors also need to recover the faulty part for analysis, repair or appropriate disposal. That can be a weak link in many organizations' service parts logistics operations, since both vendor and end customer are primarily focused on outbound delivery and repair. DHL's Asset Recovery Tool has been developed to help vendors streamline their reverse logistics processes. The system logs and tracks all returnable assets in the field, as well as providing a self-service portal for field engineers to manage the return shipment of parts. Analytical capabilities allow companies to track assets by age, helping them identify and rescue parts that have become stranded in the field.

Finally, says Jason Pawlowski, Vice President, Global Center of Excellence, DHL Service Logistics, technology companies increasingly see logistics data as a powerful source of insights into the effectiveness of their service operations. "Advanced analytics techniques are helping us to become much more proactive with our data. Analysis can reveal how demand is evolving over time, and getting that information into the hands of decision-makers helps our customers make better choices about what their service inventories should contain and where they should be located."
—  Jonathan Ward

Published: April 2018

Images: Per Swantesson/Stocksy; DHL