SA CIOs ill-prepared for prolonged power cuts

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 12 Jun 2023

While South African CIOs are under pressure to prepare their organisations for extended load-shedding, or a complete grid failure, some admit they are not fully prepared for the worst-case scenario.

This emerged during a round table discussion for CIOs and IT leaders hosted by the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA), aimed at discussing ways of managing the risks posed by an unstable grid.

Moderated by Carolynn Chalmers, an IT governance advisor and seasoned CIO/CTO, the event saw IITPSA-accredited professional CIOs (Pr.CIOs) presenting their viewpoints on the issue and all attendees (less than 50) responded to polls.

According to the polls, while most of their companies have some backup power capabilities, the CIOs in attendance noted higher stages of load-shedding are already taking their toll on IT systems and causing breakdowns of UPSes and generators.

ITWeb previously reported that the failure of the national power grid would lead to outages that disrupt business IT systems and infrastructure in disastrous ways.

However, Eskom has repeatedly denied claims that the national grid is on the verge of a collapse.

According to the IITPSA survey, only 34% of the CIOs and IT leaders attending said they had the necessary business continuity crisis plan, redundant connectivity and backup power reserves to manage a complete grid failure or power outages of one week or longer.

Most said increased stages of load-shedding had been somewhat or very disruptive for their operations, with only 21% saying the disruption had been minimal.

While 38% said they were equipped to function through outages only up to six hours, 7% said they could function through outages of up to 24 hours, and 21% said they had no backup power or crisis plan.

During the discussion, Andrew Roberts, CIO of Clinix Health Group, said: “Realistically, organisations in SA aren’t equipped to function in stage eight or grid-out scenarios.

“In the health and medical sector, where lives are at stake and load-shedding affects areas like authorisations, admissions, pathology and highly-sensitive robotic equipment, one no longer has the benefit of throwing money at it to make the problem go away.

“Sustained stage eight or worse would mean severe disruption to networks, fibre backbones and all points of connectivity. We need to think smarter about how we operate in constrained environments – we proved we can do it during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

On the backup and alternative power sources used by their organisations to support their IT operations, 34% of participants said they use diesel generators, 24% depend on UPS and batteries/inverters, 10% have solar systems only, and 31% use a combination of these power sources.

While 17% already have solar systems in place and 31% plan to install solar systems, 52% said they do not have the resources or space to generate the power they need using solar. Stage eight load-shedding, or grid failure for weeks would be “catastrophic” for many, notes the survey.

Cloud considerations

Ari Levien, a Pr.CIO, consultant and former CIO of a listed financial services company, said businesses were being forced to go back to first principles – what they do for their customers – in their planning for a possible grid collapse.

“In some planning exercises, leaders are saying ‘in that scenario there’s unlikely to be a market for us, so we won’t even try to function’. Those who operate in socially important services, such as emergency services and healthcare, are saying ‘let’s talk to customers or competitors and work with them to make a plan’.

“People who are willing to say it’s not business as usual will come out with the ability to innovate,” he said.

Many CIOs say they have had to learn new skills to build resilience into their operations and manage costs better, with 5% saying they had to develop new electrical knowledge to manage backup power, 21% having to improve their cloud skills to make the right tech decisions and manage costs, 5% having to improve their procurement and negotiation skills to manage costs better, and 37% having to multi-task across several new areas.

According to the survey, cloud migration plans are being impacted by load-shedding, with some IT leaders speeding up their move to the cloud, and others shelving planned moves to the cloud.

However, 21% said they were moving more workloads to the cloud than they had planned to, and 7% were moving all of their systems to the cloud because of load-shedding. Meanwhile, 36% said they were already in the cloud, 25% had not changed their cloud strategy because of load-shedding and 11% said they were not moving to the cloud.

Adrian van Eeden, CIO of GIBS, commented: “There are a lot of unanticipated risks. For example, our cloud mitigation strategy was challenged when our generation capacity failed and we couldn’t find spare generators.

“There are risks around staff and students to consider – if they themselves don’t have connectivity, they can’t participate and there is a risk associated with them travelling to the campus through load-shedding.”