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Proximity In Space And Time

When a failure occurs in a complex, networked, socio-technical system, the probability is high that the root cause is located far away from the failure detection point in time, space, or both. The progression in time goes something like this:

fault ———–> error———-> error—————–>error——>failure discovered!

An unanticipated fault begets an error, which begets another error(s), which begets another error(s), etc, until the failure is manifest via loss of life or money somewhere and sometime downstream in the system. In the case of a software system, the time from fault to catastrophic failure may take milliseconds, but the distance between fault and failure can be in the 100s of thousands of lines of source code sprinkled across multiple machines and networks.

Let’s face it. Envisioning, designing, coding, and testing for end-to-end “system level” error conditions in software systems is unglamorous and tedious (unless you’re using Erlang – which is thoughtfully designed to lessen the pain). It’s usually one of the first things to get jettisoned when the pressure is ratcheted up to meet some arbitrary schedule premised on a baseless, one-time, estimate elicited under duress when the project was kicked-off. Bummer.

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