So a recent trip to the ER (no, nothing serious, wasn’t me, thanks for asking) reminded me of a topic near and dear to my heart: Alarms and Alerts. What prompted this thought was the number of beeps, boops, and chirps I heard while there that no one responded to.  This leads to the question: Why have them, if no one responds to them?

I have a simple rule for alarms: “Don’t put an alert on something unless you have a response pre-planned for it.”

This is actually more complex than it sounds. And it can sometimes lead to seemingly illogical conclusions if you follow it in a reductio ad absurdum fashion.

Let’s start with an example of one alert I heard while sitting waiting. It was a constant beep, about 90 times a minute. I soon tracked it down to a portable monitor attached to a patient that was soon to be moved upstairs.  It was the person’s pulse.  Besides a possible HIPAA violation (I was now in theory privy to private medical information) it really served no purpose other than to annoy the patient and those around them. “But Greg, perhaps they were afraid the patient would suddenly go into cardiac arrest or something else would happen.”  And I agree, but then let’s alert on the sudden change in conditions, not in what was, at the time, a stable pulse for the patient. This beeping went on for over 10 minutes. And no one was monitoring it, other than the patient and us annoyed strangers.

So, there was an alert, that apparently needed no response.

But let’s go to the other extreme. What about when an alert isn’t needed. Let’s say you’re driving your car and it throws a rod. (Yes, this happened to me once, well I wasn’t driving, my father was. It was his sister’s Volkswagon campervan). I can tell you there is NO alert when such an event happens. But, there’s no need for it. The vehicle stops. It won’t go. So an alert in that case is pretty superfluous.

But let’s tie this to IT. I’m going to give you an absurd example of when not to have an alert: When you run out of disk space.  Again, you might disagree. You’d think this would be the perfect time to have an alert. But go back to my rule. What if you have no plan for this? You’ve never gamed out the possibility.  Now, you’re out of disk space. You don’t have a plan. Does it really matter if you had an alert or not? If you can’t respond, the alert really hasn’t added anything.

The main lesson to take away from that example is, if you’re setting up an alert, make sure you do have a plan. (The other lesson of course is perhaps to have an alert BEFORE you run out of disk space!) The plan may be as simple as, “delete as many files as I can”. But of course that only works if you have files to delete. Or it might be “add another filegroup to the database for now and then figure out the long-term solution during our next planned outage.”  Or, in the worst case it might be, “update my resume.”  But the point is, if you have an alert, have SOME plan for it.

On the flip side, how many times do you have an alert that you look at and say, “oh yeah, we can ignore that, that always happens.”  Sure, that’s a plan, but honestly, ask yourself, do you need an alert in that case? Probably not. I hate getting woken up at 2:00 AM for an alert I don’t need to respond to.  So in this case if there is no plan because you don’t need a plan, eliminate the alert.

I could go on (and perhaps this will be a good topic for my next book) but I’ll add one last real-world case where people all to often ignore alerts: smoke and CO detectors; especially CO detectors.  If you have a CO detector and it alerts, do NOT assume it’s faulty and unplug it. Respond. Somehow. Don’t automatically assume it’s a faulty battery, especially if it’s the winter. If you have any doubt, please call the fire department. Trust me, they’d much rather respond to a call where you’re all alive and it’s a false CO alarm than to show up and find the alarm going off, but everyone is now dead.

So the take away is, alerts are only useful if they generate a useful response.

Oh and because the inner child in me can’t resist: be a lert because the world needs more lerts! 🙂