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[ISN] BlackBerry outage underscores need for a backup plan
By Patrick Marshall
You don’t miss the water until your well runs dry. And when millions of
BlackBerrys lost their e-mail capability April 17, it suddenly became
clear how dependent many people in federal agencies and departments have
become on the devices.
“Certainly, the senior folks in the agency view them essentially as an
extension of their bodies,” Corey Booth, chief information officer of
the Securities and Exchange Commission, told Government Computer News.
And when the e-mail service went out, Booth said dryly, “it was
certainly a source of complaint.”
At first, Research in Motion offered few details of why the service was
down. Only two days later did the company explain the outage, chalking
it up to insufficient testing of new caching software in its network
operations center (NOC) in Canada.
One factor that made the outage more widespread than it otherwise might
have been is the BlackBerry system’s highly centralized message routing.
All e-mails are routed though one of two NOCs — one in Canada serving
the Western Hemisphere and one in England serving Europe, Africa and the
Booth said agencies and departments would be well-advised to plan on
“The thing that everyone has to understand is that there are very few
forms of technology, particularly of communications technology, that are
foolproof,” Booth said. “You can have a RIM-related failure, you can
have a telephone company-related failure, you can have a failure within
our e-mail system, you can have a failure at any of the gateways between
those various systems. There are a lot of places where problems can
That’s why it’s critical for staff to have a Plan B.
“Plan B can be pretty simple,” Booth said. “It can be just carrying
around peoples’ cell phone numbers. Plan B can be knowing how to log in
to your e-mail from home. There are lots of things that people can do
that are in the category of somewhat inconvenient but workable
Some analysts have also voiced concerns about the security and
reliability of a system that depends on such a centralized architecture.
And, particularly for federal agencies and departments, there may be
concerns about routing e-mails through NOCs that reside in a foreign
“If the software vendor can be forced to cooperate with government
agencies, the possibility exists that the wireless e-mail software could
include hidden eavesdropping capabilities in accordance with governments
or intelligence agencies for various purposes,” a recent Gartner report
states. For that reason, some governments — including France, Germany,
Great Britain and the Netherlands — have opted not to rely on such
However, Booth said, not all federal agencies need to be concerned. “I’m
not arrogant enough to believe that our business [at SEC] is so
mission-critical that we would be unable to perform our mission without
having two NOCs owned by RIM,” he said. On the other hand, “if we were,
say, a first-response agency of some kind — like a FEMA or a DOD — I
might have some concern.”
RIM’s response to the outage is not likely to put concerned minds at
ease. Apart from its brief statement citing the software glitch as the
culprit, the company has been quiet on the issue. A week after the
incident, no mention of the outage or its cause had been posted on the
company’s Web site nor had RIM responded to a request for an interview.
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