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IT Incidents vs. Alerts

Daniel Weiß
April 18, 2023
Table of Contents:

What are IT Incidents?

IT incidents are events which lead to a disruption or deviation from the regular operating standards of a computer system or network. They can be caused by various factors, including hardware or software failures, human error, or even deliberate external (cybersecurity) attacks. It begins with short delays, or services cutting out - for example, when a website or server is down, or access to data(bases) takes too long. Examples of serious IT incidents include system crashes, network overloads, data loss, unauthorized access or even malicious activity. These incidents can have a serious impact on an organization, including financial loss, data loss and reputational damage.

The Swiss newspaper Tagesanzeiger dubbed the technical problem that paralyzed air traffic at Zurich Airport a few months ago as "probably the most expensive IT breakdown in a long time" (article in German). The economic damage caused by flight ticket refunds, rebookings, hotel rooms, alternative means of transport or even legal claims and lawsuits can hardly be quantified. This goes to show how tremendously important it is that network operators receive alerts about IT incidents in the shortest possible time in order to be able to respond quickly.

What are IT Alerts?

IT alerts are system notifications to administrators, network operators, incident commanders, or on-call teams that an IT incident has happened or is about to happen, if no action is taken. With increasing digitization, these are being sent more often via a modern notification system as part of on-call management. Typically, these alerts provide information about the (potential) incident, including the nature of the incident, its cause and location. They may also include other details, such as the severity of the incident and the corresponding recommended measures to address it.

Alerts can also be sent to specific users or teams automatically to inform them of an incident. This message helps administrators to quickly identify and analyze the incident and determine an appropriate solution or action for the problem. Therefore, alerts are one of the fundamentals of IT incident response. Once notified, they can take immediate action to correct the problem and, if necessary, take measures to ensure it does not occur again in the future. Alerts are a fundamental part of network operations and help ensure network security and stability.

What are the requirements for IT alerts?

IT alerts are an essential part of the notification process. They are used to identify a potentially harmful event at an early stage and enable rapid responses. The requirements for IT alerts vary, depending on the company and its environment.

Common requirements include incident detection, detailed analysis and, of course, razor-sharp response time. This is because important metrics such as MTTA (Mean Time to Acknowledge) and MTTR (Mean Time to Resolution) must be kept low. An IT alerting system must be able to integrate with different types of monitoring systems and other sources for critical events to detect potential incidents early. It must also provide the ability to retain detailed data about incidents or systems, and analyze it quickly. This capability is important to minimize alarm fatigue. In hospitals, for example, there is an excessive number of alarms, which in turn leads to this fatigue. This can lead to potentially vital alerts being ignored, and can be fatal.

Furthermore, it is important that an IT alerting system can respond to incidents or alerts with various measures. In the first step, the alert must be acknowledged immediately to prevent further escalations. Furthermore, the alert may contain instructions (playbooks) to solve the problem. These playbooks can also be executed automatically. For example, stored stakeholders whose services are affected can be informed automatically. It is also important that an IT alerting system is scalable at any time and can be adapted to the specific requirements of the company or the use case.

A good IT alerting system helps organizations identify and prevent potentially harmful events before they result in financial loss. It can also help reduce incident management costs by responding to problems more quickly and efficiently. An IT alerting system plays an essential role in safeguarding the company's value by detecting incidents early, as well as responding to them in a timely and, above all, appropriate manner.

IT alerting requirements vary widely depending on the size and scope of the IT system at hand. Generally, they include the following:

  • Easy integration with monitoring tools and other alert sources that monitor servers and other hardware components, such as routers and switches, to detect potential performance issues.
  • Management of on-call schedules, escalations paths and contact information.
  • Automatic notifications that can be sent to on-call staff when certain triggers are activated.
  • Automatic escalation when alerted individuals do not acknowledge the alarm.
  • Integration with downstream systems in the IT infrastructure such as ticketing, chat and collaboration tools.

In larger companies, IT alerting requirements also include communication of incidents to affected stakeholders.

What are the benefits of IT alerting solutions?

As we now know, IT Alerting is used to centralize and dispatch alerts and can be considered a part of IT Monitoring. Alerting tools receive alerts from monitoring tools and reliably deliver them to the right stakeholders or on-call teams, and respond to events independently (through appropriate configuration) to resolve them without human supervision.

Alerts can be configured to set parameters for automatic responses, such as restarting a service or routing issues to higher level staff.

By using an effective IT alert system, organizations can:

  • Identify and fix problems quickly, before they become major issues.
  • Execute playbooks automatically (e.g. restarting service)
  • Increase customer satisfaction by responding promptly to any problem detected
  • Reduce costs incurred by downtime or service interruptions
  • Increase service uptime for IT operations

What options are there for IT alerting?

IT alerts should always be custom messages that can be sent through multiple channels to best reach on-call staff. They are generated automatically and, with customizable configuration, can make the difference between success and loss. Excellent IT alerting systems include the following:

Reliable and interactive alerting: It is important that notifications reach the right people or teams to resolve incidents quickly and effectively. Reliable alerting tools send on multiple channels such as email, push messages and (international) SMS or even phone calls if necessary.

Priority-based notification rules: Prioritization allows alerts to be more or less intrusive, as needed. This is another powerful aid to prevent alert fatigue.

Integrated and intelligent escalations: Smart alerting tools can be used to define escalation rules. These are automatically triggered when incidents are not resolved within a certain timeframe, or if there has been no response.

Escalation delay: Sometimes alerts resolve themselves within a short period of time. A delay in this case can alleviate alarm fatigue.

Other blog posts you might like:

What is Alert Fatigue in DevOps and How to Combat It With the Help of ilert

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On-Call Management Models

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What you need to know about the The Digital Operational Resilience Act (DORA)

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