Distributed Systems – How Free Enterprise And Democracies Prevent System Failure

Massive government. All-encompassing, overweening, provide for every need, systems that mitigate every risk governance. Free universal healthcare and money for your retirement so you don’t have to worry about the “mundane” things – this is the promise of all collectivists and their variants – progressives, socialists, Marxists, communists, etc. Collectivists believe that democratic systems are just too inefficient and seek to create “planned” economies and social order through the creation of enforced “sameness” through creating large, conforming systems.

Supporters of these ideologies reference their belief that the role of government is to do the things that we cannot do for ourselves – except these days, that seems to be just about everything. The premise of this thought process is the same as it was in the recent massive economic collapse – there are entities that are simply “too big to fail”, that all-encompassing government cannot fail the people…but is this true?

I was just in Angola this week and in conversation about how much the Internet service sucked at the hotel, I was reminded of a concept that is a basic when designing any large-scale system. This is a concept that applies in structuring production processes, machine design, computer networks and even political systems – because after all, government is a system. Called the single point of failure, this is most prevalent in the design of communication, data and power transmission networks.

Wikipedia describes a single point of failure as this:

A single point of failure (SPOF) is a part of a system that, if it fails, will stop the entire system from working.They are undesirable in any system with a goal of high availability or reliability, be it a business practice, software application, or other industrial system.

The country of Angola is a communist/socialist state and as such all services are centralized and under government control. They experienced a SPOF several months ago in their national Internet service because they had placed all the servers and main routing structures in on area – when there was a single major issue that knocked this data center off-line, the entire country was without Internet service for a week.

The manufacturers of the ubiquitous Blackberry, Research in Motion, recently had a massive, week-long outage in Europe, South America and Africa due to a faulty core switch – which strangely was designed as a failsafe system to move the data flow to a redundant backup system – so the “failsafe” failed:

In a press briefing yesterday evening, RIM Chief Technology Officer David Yach confirmed the technical problem was down to a faulty core switch in the main Slough network operating centre, which routes BlackBerry traffic across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, India and for three operators in South America.

This was a single point of failure as a failover system did not kick in to another switch at the same site. There was no way RIM could have re-routed the traffic bypassing Slough, analysts said, as it is only one of two main network operating centres RIM runs to serve the world network – the other being in Waterloo, Canada where its HQ is.

Why is this germane? It is relevant because the users of the Internet in Angola and the Blackberry users in affected eastern regions had become dependent on these services for communication, commerce and societal connections. These are smaller scale examples of what is occurring in the US with the insidious integration of government into the economy and our individual lives and the dependencies being created.

These developments are far more dangerous than an Internet or Blackberry outage because there are increasingly more people becoming dependent on government for their very sustenance. More people are on food stamps than ever (the CBO says that food stamp spending has increased over 135%  in the past 4 years), government benefits now make up 18% of individual income, 23% of people 65 and older live in households that depend on Social Security for 90% or more of their income, and if Obamacare is implemented, 100% of the citizens will be reliant on the government for health care services, so the argument that the US isn’t moving toward cradle to grave socialism is simply not supported by the facts.

Big, centralized systems are subject to single points of failure. We have witnessed it – remember the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall?

How do system designers avoid major systems failure? Over time, they have implemented distributive systems. Take for example the history of networked computing. When I was in college, everything ran off a mainframe. I used to sit at a keypunch machine creating programs on punch cards to be fed to a large centralized mainframe in the “computer center”. I had to wait in line for my cards to be read and it was a logistics nightmare – on nights where there was heavy demand, I might have to wait hours, periodically it could take a day, to have a simple program run – while this processing was very efficient and rational for the mainframe, it was very, very inefficient for the user. The user was essentially a slave to the process of the mainframe…and when the central system went down, nothing happened for anyone.

Later on, the campus implemented “dumb” terminals scattered around where more people could gain slices of time and input their programs via this electronic connection. That made it slightly more convenient but we were still at the whim of uptime of the central computer.

Now we use distributed systems – if you are reading this now on a PC of Mac, you are part of a global distributed network called the Internet, an aggregation of individual computers operating independently connected by a communication system. You can use them as you like, when you like and you do not have to wait or to depend on a central authority. You elect when use it and what you do, you are free. You are not a slave to the operating processes of a central entity.

When the Internet goes down, that doesn’t stop your ability to continue working or creating because the engines for those activities are on your local computer, also if your individual computer goes down, it does not compromise the entire system. Your computer, even groups of individual computers, can be hit by a virus but it can be isolated to those groups and not impact the entire Internet.

Free enterprise and democracy are both examples of distributed systems giving the same freedoms and benefits as the advances in networked computing. The risk of a single point of failure is eliminated by distributing the risk to the smallest individual units across the system. This allows the individual to take on as much risk as they are comfortable with, reap the greatest rewards and yet protect the security of the entire system by insulating the other members of the system from that risk (unless they decide to accept the same risks).

See the similarities? If we keep going like we are today, we will all be waiting in line with our punch cards in hand and when the system goes down, and it will – just ask the former Soviets, we are all going to be out of luck.

6 thoughts on “Distributed Systems – How Free Enterprise And Democracies Prevent System Failure

  1. I LOVE this analogy! Why? You’ve actually made it somewhat possible for me to understand technology! May I shamelessly steal it? I shall give you full credit, of course. I’ll even throw in some Veet For Men Hair Removal Gel Creme. Would you believe it’s Rick’s favorite? He swears that horse-back riding and hobo hunting are the cure to easing the aftermaths of the pain.

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