In the days when men drove seething masses of logs down the wild rivers of North America, the log jam was an ever-present threat. It would begin with a single log, catching on a sand bar, or turning the wrong way in the rapids–something to impede its motion. The momentum of the logs behind would carry them over, driving the first log more firmly in place. Quickly though, another log would catch on the first, and then another, soon the whole mass would be penned in, the pressure of the water forcing the logs closer together into an unpredictable, potentially deadly jumble.
Preventing, or at the worst case, breaking the jams that would occur was the constant occupation of the log driver. His job was to see the jams forming, and break them up before they could grow too large, thus saving time, money, and, potentially, lives.
In business technology, a “log jam” occurs when a single piece of outdated technology impedes the progress of the rest of your infrastructure. While the consequences are not often fatal, failure to prevent, or clear these technology log jams before it’s too late can be catastrophic to businesses, both small and large.
Your business needs drive your technology, just as the river drives the logs. It’s a force that cannot be stopped or controlled (though it can often be predicted and planned for). Too many companies let the placid waters lull them into a false sense of security, only to find disaster when they go through the rapids.
Hung up in the Rapids
And what are the rapids? They’re different in every case, but they could be a failing server, or a corporate merger (or split), or the loss of a major customer, or a change in government regulations, or a new software release, or anything that requires quick action, and the implementation of new technology.
Let’s take a look at a hypothetical example. You’ve begun selling a new product line, and you’ve realized that your accounting package doesn’t support the type of transactions required. The accounting software company has a module that does exactly what you need, but you can only get it by upgrading to the newest version. Unfortunately, the newest version of the accounting software would require you to upgrade your computers to Windows 7, which sounds fine, until you realize that your production software only runs on Windows XP.
You begin to research upgrading this software, only to find that the upgrade not only costs several thousand dollars more than you have in your IT budget, it would also require you to purchase a new server. Just as you decide that you could bite the bullet and pull together the money from somewhere, you are totally stymied when someone reminds you that the reason you never upgraded the production software in the first place was because of a critical machine on the production floor that can only communicate with that version of the program. Remembering that the manufacturer of the machine was bought out three times, and there hasn’t been support for it in eight years, you throw up your hands and walk away.
You’re in a log jam.
Breaking the Jam
Like I said. That’s a hypothetical example, but it’s not an exaggeration. I can think of three real-life cases like this, or worse, that I’ve been involved in this year. I chose a production-type environment for the example, but it can happen in any industry, and it can happen more quickly than you might imagine.
How do you break the log jam? It’s different in every case, but it starts with identifying the source. In the scenario above, the source of the log jam is not the new product line, or the upgrade of the accounting system. That’s the force of progress (the river). The log that caused the jam is the piece that appeared least significant: It’s the production machine that’s been quietly doing it’s job for the last decade, but which can’t move along with the rest of the network.
Breaking this jam could be as “simple” as buying a new machine to replace the old one. Depending on what that machine does though, this could be an expensive proposition. Once that occurs, all the other pieces have to move in rapid succession. As you upgrade one piece, you’ll need to begin upgrading the other pieces that depend on it. The longer you’ve let this log jam go on, the more pieces become involved, and the harder it will be to break it all apart. In most cases, breaking a technology log jam involves spending a lot of money on many things in quick succession. Occasionally, you may be able to relieve some of the pressure for a time, but you’re going to have to break up the jam eventually.
Recognizing a Jam Before it Occurs
The best way to avoid spending lots of money all at once is to prevent a jam from occurring in the first place. Just like the log drivers of yore, this is a skill that takes a keen eye, constant attention, and a little intuition. Unless you have a lot of extra time to devote to managing technology, this is where having an outside IT company monitoring and managing your network really pays off.
In all cases, the source of a technology log jam will be any piece of technology, software, or service that cannot keep up with the times. Just like in a real log drive, all the logs must move smoothly downstream, or they must be pushed onto the shore so they don’t become obstacles for the rest of the timber. Here are four signs you might be headed for a log jam:
- Unsupported Hardware or Software: Any piece of technology or equipment that is no longer supported by the manufacturer will almost certainly create a log jam at some point. You need to make plans to upgrade or replace it as soon as possible. Sometimes, these old systems are no longer needed, and employees just use them because that’s how they’ve always done it. Often you can simply get rid of the system entirely and become more efficient in the process.
- Inability to Upgrade Because of a Dependency: A system that cannot be upgraded to its most current version because a second system that depends on it won’t work, should raise a red flag. When this is discovered, you need to take immediate steps to upgrade or replace the second system, so that it could work with the latest version of the first system. Upgrading the first system right away is not a priority (unless you need to do it for other reasons) but you need to leave the option open, so it doesn’t catch you by surprise.
- Poor Documentation: Lack of documentation or understanding about how a system works, or how the pieces integrate can lead to disastrous and expensive log jams. When no one knows what’s connected to what, touching any piece could potentially bring the whole thing down on your head. Don’t wait until you have a server that’s failing, or a drive that’s filling up, before you take the time to document the components of your network.
- Unsolicited Advice: People telling you that you need to upgrade this or that is a really good sign that you need to upgrade this or that. Whether it’s your employees, or contractors, or even your software vendors, if you’re getting pressure to upgrade, it’s probably time to consider it. You need to temper this with some realism, and you may want to get a second opinion, but whatever you do, don’t do nothing.
How to Prevent a Jam
The most important component of preventing a log jam is to keep your systems up to date. Critical components of your network should never be more than six months out of date with the latest updates. The more pieces that depend on a single component, the more critical that component becomes. Keeping these pieces up to date will uncover potential conflicts before they become log jams. This is going to mean spending a little money now and then, but it beats spending a lot of money all at once.
As for other pieces of software and equipment, a good rule of thumb is to never be more than one update behind the current release. And never run anything in your business that you can’t get support for. That’s just asking for trouble.
Keep documentation and keep it current. As explained above, lack of documentation is a leading cause of technology log jams. If you don’t do this yourself, your IT service company definitely should. If you have a flat-fee service contract with them, they would be crazy not to do this.
Utilize cloud services and software-as-a-service wherever they make sense. Instead of purchasing a succession of software licenses for software that goes out of date, consider paying monthly for software that is continually updated. Aside from their many other benefits cloud-based services are much less likely to cause a log jam than any other piece of technology you use.
Hire someone to be your “log driver”. Like I stated above, managing a network is a skill that comes from experience. It also requires constant attention. It’s not something you can do on an as-needed basis. Your “computer guy” who comes in once a month when something is broken is not going to have the visibility into your network and your business that he would need to successfully navigate your particular river. You need a company who constantly monitors your network, and you need a company who will partner with you at a business level. It is here, where the technology meets the business needs, where the business technology advisor has the best vantage point, seeing all the logs, and the river ahead.
Remember, if you see any of the signs of a potential log jam, don’t wait! Do something today.