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From pulled plugs to the butterfly effect: Accounting software’s outage evolution

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AccountingWEB technology editor Tom Herbert ponders the changing nature of accounting software glitches and asks whether we’ll ever see 100% software reliability?

10th Feb 2022
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Let me take you back to the heady days of 1998. Beckham-mania gripped the nation, the Spice Girls were riding high in the charts and your intrepid tech editor was ensconced in a summer job at the finance department of a local council.

My job was to sift through dishevelled pieces of paper that would land on my desk in internal envelopes - remember those? I had to decipher what was scrawled on them and key the information into a relatively new copy of Excel 95. Pretty much all day.

If my memory serves me correctly, Excel 95 did have an autosave function. However, you had to switch it on for it to actually work - an important detail we’ll come back to in a moment.

It was month-end on a hot summer’s afternoon. The evening sun was beginning to set over the brutalist concrete buildings overlooking us and the team was beavering away, trying to tie things up so we could head across the road to the Leg & Whistle. That day I’d added hundreds of entries to my spreadsheet of dreams when Steve the finance manager entered, stage left. 

Steve sported a mullet and earring combo that would qualify him for a position on the Australian cricket team. He was also a Jedi master when it came to his timesheet, earning himself the nickname “Stevie 501”, as that was what time he clocked off every day.

At that moment, Steve needed a plug socket. Like any good alpha male, he didn’t stop to ask questions. Without warning, my screen went blank - laptops with built-in batteries were but a glint in the council IT manager’s eye.

Did I mention you had to switch on Excel’s autosave function back then? Reader, it was a long and frustrating evening, but I’m happy to report we did make it to the Leg & Whistle.

Meanwhile, back in the present...

The recent software outages on self assessment deadline day and a few other recent cloud software glitches took me back to my early experiences with accounting technology and got pondering how the nature of software reliability has changed.

As my Excel snafu demonstrated, software disasters were relatively localised in the old days. A scratched disk here, a faulty server there – nothing too widespread. Nowadays, however, the internet’s limitless landscape has created a tech-based interdependency capable of butterfly effects of enormous range and magnitude.

Faceless, invisible and unpredictable consequences rampage around the system. If a spam filter falls over in the Philippines, half the users of cloud software in the UK can’t file VAT returns – that type of thing. 

As we saw in October, a relatively minor router reconfiguration took out Facebook for nearly six hours and Twitter suffered a similar outage.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. The internet was designed as a military-grade communications tool that could reroute messages to their destination if one of the nodes failed. But since it sank into the multi-tentacled embrace of capitalism, the net has scaled up to feed Silicon Valley magnates the bankable benefits of a captive audience.

So here we are. If a particular cloud platform is down then all users suffer – accountants and clients – and unlike a scratched disk or accidental lead pull, there isn’t a great deal they can do about it.

In search of shared experiences

In a small way perhaps, these episodes provide the profession with a small dose of the shared experiences we no longer have with television, radio or film. During my adolescence, 30m people tuned in to BBC 1 to watch a fictional man hand his equally fictional wife divorce papers, while 26m watched a couple of ice dancers from Nottingham twirl around to Ravel’s Bolero. Water cooler moments before water coolers reached UK shores.

Nowadays if you think can imagine it, it’s out there, accessible any time day or night. Japanese anthropomorphic red pandas singing death metal karaoke? Check. Texan teenagers re-enacting Operation Overlord on Call of Duty streamed live on Twitch? Duh, of course! The economic long tail so popular in the noughties has well-and-truly been pulled. 

But do these software outages give stressed-out practitioners their very own ‘Who shot JR’ moments? While a scream into the Any Answers void can be cathartic, the glitches are not particularly positive shared experiences - I can’t see the likes of Xero and IRIS putting them on their sales brochures.

Let’s assume that as long as humans are involved, there will be no such thing as 100% software reliability. Crypto utopians may point to the blockchain and its untamperable shared ledgers as a solution, but the amount of electricity needed to power it will boil the oceans before it reaches that scale. Whether you can file a client’s tax return will probably be the least of your worries by then. 

Anyway, my laptop is due a trip to IT, so while I’m waiting for the next cloud-based shutdown I’ll use my time to remember what Steve needed to plug in so urgently

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