British Airways is suing CBRE, the outsourcing company it had engaged to run its data centers, because last year, on the UK's May Bank Holiday weekend, those data centers failed, leaving the airline with thousands of stranded passengers and a compensation bill estimated to be around £58 million.
There is very little we can say about this specific case at this stage. Neither side is making any public comment.
But the silence itself is noteworthy, and the arrival of this case in the halls of London's High Court should make every other enterprise company with IT partners sit up and pay attention. This passing into the legal domain is an admission that something else failed here, besides the technology.
Outsourcing the blame?
Problems with outsourcing bedevil every walk of life. For example, your local authority probably doesn't run its own garbage collection, and your local hospital might not operate its own ambulances. In the UK, a lot of public sector work, like the administration of benefits, is outsourced to various management firms. For instance, benefits claimants have to pass various assessments, including the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment for invalidity benefit administered by Atos, and a Work Capability Assessment for sickness benefit administered first by Atos and, since 2015, by US outsourcing firm Maximus. Both schemes have come under intense fire for alleged cruelty.
In these situations, when there is a problem, those affected know that blame is shared. If the bins aren't collected, it may be a failure of the contractor, or it may be the fault of the local council for mismanaging the system. Likewise, when poor, disabled people die after being declared fit for work, the government gets slated alongside the outsourcing firm.
In the IT industry, there may be an unrealistic expectation that the responsibility for a particular service falls entirely on the shoulders of the outsourcer. In fact, the outsourcer is taking on responsibility for a legacy environment. Even if they are re-implementing it in a new facility, there will be old applications, old assumptions, and old architectures. If it fails, it could be down to weaknesses in the way the system is set up - just as your waste bins might pile up because the council's waste contractor is chasing unrealistic expectations.
Last year, following the problems at Heathrow, Willie Walsh, CEO of BA's parent company IAG, pointed the finger at "human error" on the part of an engineer employed by the contractor - clearly laying the blame on CBRE. That statement was later retracted, and CBRE promised to cooperate with the inquiry, saying: 'No determination has been made yet regarding the cause of this incident. Any speculation to the contrary is not founded in fact.'
The root cause of the failure will be completely clear by now. Data centers may be complex systems involving humans and technology, but all of their events are logged and there's a limit to how many things can fail.
The inquiry will have come to nothing for one reason: an inability to agree on who is at fault. The essential failure now, perhaps more important than the technological one, is a failure to agree on an interpretation of clauses in the contract.
One of the emails in my inbox suggested that many customers expect to be able to "outsource the blame," along with the "IT architecture fails" which eventually lead to a failure. With this whole thing sub judice, it's way too early to say that's what happened here.
But when a case like this comes to court, it seems likely to me that the client will claim that the outsourcer should have prevented the failure, and the outsourcer will argue it could not have been expected to. Even if the outsourcer wins the argument, it leaves everyone faced with a sobering realization.
Outsourcing agreements do not, and cannot, absolve the client of all responsibility for making the system workable. And they aren't a magic way to deliver a reliable service with no risk at all.
Whatever the outcome of this case, it will change things, both for data center outsourcers and for their clients.