Blog article
See all stories »

Paying for candles in the dark

A couple of years ago, here at FIS Europe, business growth meant that we needed to move our mid-range data centre.  We looked at outsourcing, in-house builds and even taking on a former telephone exchange.

In the end, the biggest factor behind our decision was continuity of power.  How sure could we be that the reliable, scalable electricity supply we need to support our ambitious plans would be guaranteed?

Today in the UK, certainty of scalable power is limited largely to those parts of the country which were central to the Industrial Revolution, when our national generation and distribution infrastructure was designed to support the new mills and factories.  It seems extraordinary that virtualisation, cloud computing and all that is fashionable in our industry is still influenced by the decisions made back in the 19th century by stout men with Stovepipe hats, fob watches and mutton-chop whiskers. 

It is not just the UK. In Germany and other countries, the rush to switch off nuclear following the disaster in Japan will most likely put further strain on the remaining infrastructure. And despite efforts to green up, Moore’s Law still seems to apply to power consumption just as much as it does to processing power. Perhaps that’s why my current mobile phone has a battery life just one-tenth of my old Nokia.

By contrast, my home village wasn’t really on the map during the industrial revolution. That’s probably why we get at least half a dozen power cuts a year – including two last week. In my house you are never more than six feet away from a candle.

During the last couple of weeks I have written about life after cash and all the benefits of replacing grubby notes with sleek electronic interchange. But what happens when the batteries go flat or the lights go out?

Incidentally, I was talking recently with a retailer who had a power supply fail on his POS device on a busy Saturday.  First, he dug out an old ledger from the back room. Then, in order to keep trading, he noted down the card details, CVV numbers and, of course, the name and address of the customers. A couple of days later, the new terminal turned up and he put all the transactions through the new terminal. Problem solved. As he was telling me about this I asked how he handled all that confidential data:  “What do you mean PCI compliant? Of course I wrote down all their flippin’ details – do you think I am an idiot?”

When everything is electronic, a power failure is a big problem. And with the state of most national power infrastructures, systemic power failures are likely to become more common with demand growing whilst smoky old coal plants are decommissioned before capacity from alternative sources fills the gap. So if the national grid is unreliable and battery life is shrinking, not growing, what is the answer?

I am in two minds about all this. On the one hand, I can see the dramatic improvements that electronic payments can bring – better financial control for the consumer, lower costs, more targeted marketing, tighter security, fewer bad guys getting away with theft and fraud...

But on the other hand, when that Victorian infrastructure starts to wobble, and our mobile devices can’t get through a day without bleeping desperately to be fed, perhaps there is something to be said for carrying a little cash?  Or I suppose I could just open an account at the village candle shop.

3186

Comments: (4)

Roy McPherson
Roy McPherson - Macroy Consulting - Maldon 10 October, 2011, 16:50Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Nice pros and cons. I still can't get used to seeing someone in a coffee shop pay by debit card for such a minimal transaction as a coffee and a bun.

John Dring
John Dring - Intel Network Services - Swindon 11 October, 2011, 08:27Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Cutting electricity is a powerful tactic in surpressing uprisings!  But people get generators and make the best of it.

With cable theft on the rise, even in so called first world countries, losing phone and more importantly broadband is almost as debilitating (POS terminals stop, most information is cut off).  But at least you'll have electric and smartphones to get that digital news fix.

A Finextra member
A Finextra member 11 October, 2011, 08:51Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Is there a correct way to do this?  Or if when the power goes off, you have to choose between doing what the retailer did (and breaking various regulations) and not trading?

"First, he dug out an old ledger from the back room. Then, in order to keep trading, he noted down the card details, CVV numbers and, of course, the name and address of the customers. A couple of days later, the new terminal turned up and he put all the transactions through the new terminal. Problem solved. As he was telling me about this I asked how he handled all that confidential data"

Ketharaman Swaminathan
Ketharaman Swaminathan - GTM360 Marketing Solutions - Pune 11 October, 2011, 17:19Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Great post! Goes to show how the move between cash and cashless is not guaranteed to go only in one direction - as long as creaking infrastructure plays truant.

Also reminds me of a LinkedIn thread in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in the US in which opposing camps were discussing the merits and demerits of an iPhone v. Android app for keeping people updated about progress made on relief measures surrounding natural calamities. I'd just heard from my sister living in Virginia that her mobile phone battery was about to die in a few minutes since power supply to their area was cut off 3 days earlier. Having just come out of that prematurely-aborted telecon where I also learned that her power supply wasn't likely to resume for another 7 days, I couldn't help throwing water on the LinkedIn thread by proposing trumpet-and-drum toting people as the only viable method of alerting people under such circumstances!