Complexity Bites Back

What percentage of business-impacting application outages are caused by networks? According to a recent survey by the Uptime Institute, about 30% of the 300 operators they surveyed, 29% have experienced network related outages in the last three years—the highest percentage of causes for IT failures across the period.

A secondary question on the survey attempted to “dig a little deeper” to understand the reasons for network failure; the chart below shows the result.

We can be almost certain the third-party failures, if the providers were queried, would break down along the same lines. Is there a pattern among the reasons for failure?

Configuration change—while this could be somewhat managed through automation, these kinds of failures are more generally the result of complexity. Firmware and software failures? The more complex the pieces of software, the more likely it is to have mission-impacting errors of some kind—so again, complexity related. Corrupted policies and routing tables are also complexity related. The only item among the top preventable causes that does not seem, at first, to relate directly to complexity is network overload and/or congestion problems. Many of these cases, however, might also be complexity related.

The Uptime Institute draws this same lesson, though through a slightly different process, saying: “Networks are complex not only technically, but also operationally.”

For years—decades, even—we have talked about the increasing complexity of networks, but we have done little about it. Yes, we have automated all the things, but automation can only carry us so far in covering complexity up. Automation also adds a large dop of complexity on top of the existing network—sometimes (not always, of course!) automating a complex system without making substantial efforts at simplification is just like trying to put a fire out with a can of gas (or, in one instance I actually saw, trying to put out an electrical fire with a can of soda, with the predictable trip to the local hospital.

We are (finally) starting to be “bit hard” by complexity problems in our networks—and I suspect this is the leading edge of the problem, rather than the trailing edge.

Maybe it’s time to realize making every protocol serve every purpose in the network wasn’t a good idea—we now have protocols that are so complex that they can only be correctly configured by machines, and then only when you narrow the use case enough to make the design parameters intelligible.

Maybe it’s time to realize optimizing for every edge use case wasn’t a good idea. Sometimes it’s just better to throw resources at the problem, rather than throwing state at the control plane to squeeze out just one more ounce of optimization.

Maybe it’s time to stop building networks around “whatever the application developer can dream up.” To start working as a team with the application developers to build a complete system that puts complexity where it most makes sense, and divides complexity from complexity, rather than just assuming “the network can do that.”

Maybe it’s time to stop thinking we can automate our way out of this.

Maybe it’s time to lay our superhero capes down and just start building simpler systems.


  1. kon on 15 March 2021 at 3:11 pm

    just when i thought that the source of all our troubles was “human error” as thousands of surveys used to suggest few years ago… 🙂