Even government road warriors need contingency plans

Thomas R. Temin

One of the most talked-about trends is the convergence of computing and telecommunications. Voice networks are taking on more and more data traffic. Companies are putting their voice traffic over their IP data networks. At the device level, wireless PC Card modems and hybrid phone-organizer-computers are more and more common. New notebook computers can double as office machines.

Integration and convergence of computing and telecommunications certainly make sense, but recent experiences make me realize that redundancy and backup systems do, too. Having one carrier and one department or corporate network increases efficiency, but it can also increase vulnerability by concentrating potential points of failure.

Spending more than a fair amount of time away from the office, I sometimes wish notebook computers didn't exist. The darn things mean you work 24 hours a day when you're on the road.

I'm on my third or fourth notebook, having started about 12 years ago with a little Toshiba that lacked a hard drive and stored applications in RAM. My current Compaq 200-MHz Armada rarely crashes'maybe once every five or six times it emerges from suspend. A warm reboot always gets it going again.

This year I've added a wireless phone and a Palm V pocket computer from 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., to my road equipment. The Palm can store 1,600 names, addresses and numbers.

Recently all this electronica changed from a convenience to a necessity for any trip lasting more than a day. E-mail volume and the urgency of everything are contributing factors. For me the inflection point'to borrow Intel Corp. chairman Andy Grove's phrase'arrived with a near breakdown of the air transportation system in the United States.

Too many planes and too much bad weather have finally caught up with the aging Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control systems and the lack of deployment of systems that could increase traffic volume safely. I took 11 flight segments, as the industry calls them, in eight days recently'only four of them left and arrived on time. Some of the late ones were really late'up to three hours. Thanks to the airlines' hub-and-spoke system, one computer failure or thunderstorm nearly always congeals into a national snarl.

As a result, I spent more time typing on my Compaq, murmuring into my Nokia and tapping on my Palm than I ever had before. Facing hours-long blocks of dead time can really spur a person's productivity. I see now that problems with one segment of the public technical infrastructure'that part that makes, or doesn't make, airplanes go on time'has increased the importance of other segments, such as digital communications and remote computing.

Now that portable equipment is both critical and network-connected, I want a separate computer at the office in case my notebook is smashed or stolen. If the wireless phone croaks or the service suddenly disappears, I want a regular phone booth and phone card.

On-the-go technology is like transportation itself. You always need a backup plan.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director


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