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Lessons from the U.S. Navy’s “Silent Service”: Sometimes Low Tech Is the Answer



By Richard L. Sawyer, Strategist, HP Critical Facilities Services


valve.jpgOccasionally there are unexpected benefits to business travel that both enlighten and delight.  On a recent trip to APJ, a route scheduling issue arose that required an overnight stop in Hawaii – Honolulu, to be exact.  Never having been to our 50th state, and being a bit of a techie military hardware buff, I had the opportunity to taxi over to Pearl Harbor, not far from the airport.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, not to be missed. So much history, so much hardware!


One highlight was an unescorted walking tour of the battleship U.S.S. Missouri, famed in battle and movies, and the location where the surrender of Japan was signed in 1945.  Remarkably preserved, it was a museum to different solutions to fairly complex technical issues.  “How do you determine the range of a target so you can aim your guns?” is a common military problem across the ages. Today, it’s a no brainer.  Radar, laser ranging and microprocessors give you a readout in less than a second, accurate to inches.  In the 1940’s, not so much!  The solution was primarily mechanical, using two observation posts, a parallax optical system and a mechanical computing device with written data tables.  Think slide rules before the common calculator was commercially available in the 1970’s.  But the solution worked, you could use it in the heat of battle – and there was no need for power for a computer!


But the most interesting, and enlightening, experience awaited at the U.S.S. Bowfin, moored next to the visitor center.  U.S.S. Bowfin is a WWII fleet-type submarine in full battle dress and remarkably preserved (and restored where necessary) for both memorializing those lost in the “Silent Service” and for studying the technology of the era.  Having been raised close to New London, CT, the home base for many subs, and having had site tours as a Cub Scout, this piqued my interest.


Climbing down the forward hatch into the torpedo room, I was immediately struck with what a strong case study this isdial.jpg for successfully operating data center facilities today.  This was the enlightenment moment.  All the information that you needed to know to operate the critical systems was immediately present, and in a format that left little to doubt. If a valve wheel handle had to be turned, the “open” and “closed” directions were cast into the metal with large arrows indicating the correct direction for both. Position indicators, showing if the periscope was “up” or “down”, were visible and readable, even with a flashlight in the dark.  Depth indicators were in at least 3 places, one being next to the Captain’s bunk so it was the last thing he saw before going to sleep and the first thing he saw when he woke up.  Kind of important data to know when your job is to be underwater!


Procedures.jpgAnd procedures!  Every critical operational step had a flip chart at the duty station which was read by one sailor (probably the petty officer) and executed by another. Every functional compartment had a table of flip charts for operation from that location.  Nothing was left to doubt!


Why?  If you stop and think about it, they were taking 17-20 year old farm boys from places like Iowa who had never been to sea, putting them through rapid training courses and sending them on missions where their goal was to sink the Japanese or German Navy without sinking themselves, which was a real possibility (from the data there, 4 submarines of 52 lost in the Japanese theater were lost to “operator error”, if I recall correctly). The solution?  Make the operational information clear, concise, and available at the point of need, when it is needed.


It worked!  During WWII, the submarine fleet was just 2% of the US Navy, but it accounted for 55% of all Japanese ships sunk, and destroyed 33% of the Japanese Navy.


So what is the lesson for today’s data center operations?  We expect very high levels of operational reliability from people in our data centers who didn’t go to college to be data center operators (is there such a program?)  We have facilities which have much higher complexity than a WWII submarine, and the consequences of failure are high (think of a 911 data center failure).  We, as an industry, do a good job of collecting and preserving our operational documentation, for the most part, but it is typically in electronic form, menu driven.   What happens when the electronic access goes away or is unintentionally misused?  The solution, as we learn from the U.S.S. Bowfin, can be “low tech”.


Taking steps to make critical operational information accessible, visual and clearly understood at the point of use, through hard copy and labeling, can go a long way in helping our operations staffs do what they need to do.  In an emergency or recovery situation, there is no substitute for good information, in the simplest format possible.

Low tech is sometimes the best option. As a consultant with HP Critical Facilities Services striving to optimize data center environments, I have to bring to the table all options, and be aware of any bias toward using the latest and greatest technologies to solve very real problems.  But sometimes an arrow pointing to the right button to push is invaluable information!


To learn more about me and how I can enhance your data center operations, check out my HP Technology Expert profile.

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