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A catastrophic failure in IT is an event that substantially impairs, damages, shuts down or incapacitates part or all of a system. Catastrophic failures stop core operations and impede the ability of business systems to do their jobs in real time. These events require some concerted IT response and, in many cases, long-term planning for prevention.
It is important to point out that catastrophic failures such as disk drive crashes, power surges, malware infestations and other major IT events can be classified as catastrophic, not by their inherent nature, but by how they affect the system, depending on its engineering and build. For example, planners use things like redundancy strategies and failover mechanisms to make systems more resilient – such that one particular catastrophic failure can affect two systems in very different ways. Suppose that system A has real-time data backups and failover systems in place, while system B is only running one database operation from one server. A localized IT event like the ones mentioned above would lead to catastrophic failure in system B, while system A hums smoothly along. The goal is to build systems that function smoothly and gracefully, regardless of various events that can cause catastrophic failure in more primitive systems.
With this in mind, it is up to businesses to identify what constitutes a "catastrophic failure" and to plan to prevent it. Business leaders can look at things like downtime and data loss as elements of catastrophic failure, while trying to preemptively engineer network protections and other strategies to avoid these catastrophic failures, and protect business IT systems.