Is your laptop highly available?

Maybe not yet, but…

I spent last weekend in gadget hell. First it was the garage door opener. Then my broadband home router started acting up. Finally I had to help my son with his laptop ‘blue screening’. I’m fed up and I’m not going to take it anymore…

You see, I’m very protective of my weekends. I’m busy with work during the weekdays, and weekends are my chance to relax and unwind with family and friends. The last thing I want to do is mess with the “necessary evils” of technology that permeate daily life.

Saturday morning it was the garage door opener. I was enjoying a nice cup of coffee when my wife mentioned to me that the remote keypad for the garage door opener seemed to have stopped working. After rooting through my files I finally found the instructions on how to re-program it. This involved a complex sequence of codes typed in on the keypad, followed by running up a ladder, pressing the smart “Learn” button on the door opener, followed by (run now, don’t walk, you only have 10 seconds!) going back to the keypad and typing in another sequence of codes. But, of course, it didn’t work the first time. Or the second. Or the third. Was I running too slowly? Nope. As it turned out, after I did a power cycle on the garage door opener, the darn thing started to work. I managed to get this done just in time to dash off to meet my son at the movie we’d planned on seeing.

When we got home, our home Internet wasn’t working. I cycled power on the broadband router and that didn’t fix it. The lights were flashing as usual on the stupid thing, it just wasn’t working. So I powered it off, shut down all of the connected appliances (including the little USB wireless router hooked up to my desktop, oops, almost forgot that), powered back up the router, and then proceeded to turn on each machine, one by one, and check its connectivity. Well, that worked. Back to normal. Then it was time to get dressed to go meet some friends for dinner.

After breakfast on Sunday, my son mentioned that his school laptop had been ‘blue screening’ about once every couple of days, for the last two weeks. He’d called the vendor (and connected with overseas technical support) who told him he had three choices: reboot, reload, or return. He’d already rebooted the machine several times with no luck. So he and I spent a few hours backing it up, re-installing Windows, and then reloading all his software and files. So far, with one week gone by, I’m glad to say that his notebook is stable. But who knows? It could be some flaky hardware problem, in which case he’ll have to return the machine for repair/replacement.

 All this wasted time got me to thinking: why do we put up with this kind of performance from our personal technology? Why are we satisfied with anything except 100% availability? Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect a garage door opener to work 100% of the time, but what about routers? What about laptops? For that matter, where do we draw the line and what is acceptable – more specifically, what level of availability from a product is expected or tolerated?

Clearly, mission-critical systems like heart pacemakers, missile systems, airplane electronics, etc. are expected to be highly-available and not to have a single point of failure. The cost of a failure in these instances could be tragic or catastrophic. In the telecom world, carrier-grade availability, defined as 99.999% uptime (known as ‘five-nines’) is de facto for systems that support, for example, emergency 911 calling.

But what about routers? OEMs invest heavily in making network routers carrier-grade as a competitive differentiator. The same thing goes for servers and storage systems. The cost of an outage for these platforms can be the source of enormous costs and customer dissatisfaction.

But why isn’t my laptop as carrier-grade as a network server? Some may argue that the margins on laptops are so much lower than those of servers, but I don’t think that’s relevant. OEMs sell many more laptops than servers. And fundamentally, OEMs will invest in capabilities that (1) generate more revenue, and (2) reduce their costs.  

There’s no question that better diagnostics to troubleshoot the root cause of system failures will fulfill (2) above. And as for (1), this is dependent upon their customers. I’m tired of buying consumer electronics that aren’t highly available. It’s time to vote with our wallets! I hope you’ll join me.

Alan Sguigna

4 Responses

  1. Very interesting article ! I think this kind of description is good for Asian clients , much easier for them to understand what concepts we want to express .

  2. I can relate to the garage door opener programming. A very frustrating experience. I’ve also experienced the same issue with the router/internet gateway. Sometimes, after a power cycle, or surge, it recovers nicely, with no attention needed. Other times, it requires a complete sequence like you describe.
    As for the Blue-Screen problem…I think you know the true solution. Starts with A and it’s a fruit.

  3. There is another solution to the technical problem. Try not to use them at all. What did we do when the garage was a manual effort? I know, the “son” got out of the car and lifted and closed it (in this case me). I’ll take the (now and then) 30 mins to fix the garage door opener to avoid the everyday manual chore. Same with the laptop, prior to computers everything was done by paper although the paper and pen worked, storing it and accessing the correct file was always an issue, again I’ll accept the laptop’s occasional “blue screen”.
    This has me thinking, how can I accept sub-par performance from electronics, I only can when thinking of the alternative; no electronics to assist in the job. Otherwise, I to become equally frustrated with the amount of time it takes to get the electronics back up and running. My one caveat, I am the person my entire family calls on for all electronic issues. This is good and bad. The good, I have “say” in what is purchased, since I will be the one to work with it when it fails. The bad, I have to take the time to deal with it (always at a bad time). The good, when I can get it working again, I feel good about myself and get kudo’s from the person who was thinking how they were going to get by, doing it manually……