Friday, June 22, 2007

Time to call Cupertino?

If you've visited the Internets or watched TV news the last few days, you surely couldn't have missed the reports about domestic delays across the friendly skies due to United Airlines' computer woes.
From ANN: All domestic flights were grounded by the glitch from 0800 until 1000 CDT Wednesday morning. United's international flights were not affected. UAL Chief Operating Officer Pete McDonald said the problem was caused by failure of the carrier's Unimatic system, which handles flight dispatching operations, during a systems test. A backup system failed, too. "An employee made a mistake and caused the failure of both Unimatic and our backup system," McDonald said.
O.K., I may not be Bill Gates, and my mainframe MoJo might not win me a job at Cisco Systems, but I know a few things about these dastardly computers. I know enough to keep things backed up religiously, including having one complete Macintosh tower with identical software available ready to power up if my uber-dependable Macbook Pro laptop ever goes down. And as a pilot, I know the importance of redundant systems, which is why I cannot believe a giant airline like United doesn't have two – or three – gigantic mainframe systems in different parts of the country, running completely independent of one another to allow immediate switching when the main “machine” goes haywire.

Sure, it's more complicated then that, or is it? These days, monster networks like Google and Godaddy run 99.9999% uptimes, so why can't United? Maybe it's the system itself. Here's a look at some history of Unimatic:
December 18, 2006:
Flight Attendants have trouble connecting to Unimatic. Their problems appear to possess the following symptoms: (1) The screen freezes, (2) The page does not load at all, (3) A 'Network Connection' lost message appears or the page reports a disconnection, or (4) Sometimes a 'security certificate' warning appears

July 13, 2006
United techs are still concerned about connection problems with United's AOL Unimatic/Apollo access that originally began on July 5th. If users are experiencing trouble accessing Unimatic in any way, they are asked to immediately fill out a Unimatic Problem Report.

July 11, 2006
All three of the Unimatic/Apollo Web Servers are now shutting down on a frequent/regular basis. The increased shutdowns are due to the increased volumes associated with the release of the flight attendant bid packages for August. The same web servers that service Unimatic/Apollo are also used to manage traffic to the bid packages on AOL.
I could post on this for hours, there is so much bad news about this system out there. So the next time United's system crashes and planes sit forgotten on the tarmac, souls cannot board or the flight cannot leave the gate, if they use their lame “our computer system went down” excuse, it won't be like anyone saw THAT coming!

Or, maybe they can just fix the problem for good...