Mission Critical: Overview, Examples, FAQ

What Is Mission Critical?

A mission critical task, service, or system is one whose failure or disruption would cause an entire operation or business to grind to a halt. It is a type of task, service, or system that is indispensable to continuing operations.

Uninterrupted electrical service is an example of a mission critical service for most modern businesses and consumers.

Key Takeaways

  • A mission critical task or process is one that is essential to the operation of an organization.
  • The phrase is most often used to describe information technology and utility infrastructure.
  • If a business operation cannot be interrupted under any circumstance without stopping production, it is considered mission critical to the business.
  • By contrast, a business-critical task is a priority for long-term survival or success.
  • Uninterrupted electrical service is an example of a mission critical service for most modern businesses and consumers.

Understanding Mission Critical

Mission critical refers to any essential service necessary for normal operations. If a business operation cannot be interrupted under any circumstance without stopping production, it is considered mission critical to the business. Here are some examples of mission critical tasks/processes:

  • Databases and process control software are considered mission critical to a company that runs on mainframes or workstations.
  • Emergency call centers, computerized hospital patient records, data storage centers, stock exchanges, and other operations dependent on computer and communication systems have to be protected against breakdowns due to the system's mission-critical functions.

In each of these cases, the failure of a mission critical service can cause severe disruption of services, heavy financial losses, and even danger to people.

Mission critical may also describe an idea, innovation, or strategic change that is key to the future prosperity of a business.

While many of the above examples refer to technical failures, mission critical tasks or processes are not always technical in nature.

The phrase is also used to describe an idea, innovation, or strategic change in direction that a business identifies as key to its ongoing prosperity. In the 1990s, some newspapers and magazines identified the transition to internet delivery as mission critical. Many publications that did not transition to internet delivery failed to survive.

Mission Critical vs. Business Critical

In fact, some businesses differentiate between mission critical and business critical. This is not merely a case of semantics. A business critical task or process may be key to a business's long-term success and, ultimately, its future survival. The failure of a mission critical task or process immediately stops a business or a process in its tracks.

While mission critical tasks are necessary to ensure operations remain viable, business critical applications do not always cause an immediate disaster. Rather, the goal of business critical tasks is to ensure the long-term operations and survival of a business.

Organizations may classify their operations into three different categories in order to ensure that their operations continue even in the event of a disaster: mission critical, business critical, and low priority. Mission critical tasks and applications are treated as the highest priority for immediate operations.

Business critical tasks refer to tasks and applications that continue during normal operations, but they are not necessary to ensure immediate survival during outages and other disasters. Finally, businesses can continue normal operations for long periods of time without using so-called low priority applications.

Example of a Mission Critical Failure

As long as an organization or business is in operation, there will be mission critical systems. However, depending on the type of business, what is considered mission critical for one company may not be mission critical for another company.

In 2013, a five-minute outage at Google that affected all of Google’s services, including the Google.com homepage, YouTube, Google Drive, and Gmail, cost the company approximately $545,000. Also in 2013, Amazon experienced a website outage that lasted approximately 40 minutes. According to estimates at the time (based on 2012 net sales), this outage likely cost Amazon about $1,104 in net sales per second.

Mission Critical FAQs

What Is a Mission Critical System?

A mission critical task, service, or system is essential to the survival of a business or organization. When a mission-critical system fails or is interrupted, business operations are significantly impacted.

What Is a Mission Critical Application?

Specifically, a mission critical application is a type of software program or suite of related programs that must continuously operate in order for a business or segment of a business to be successful. For example, for an ambulance company, an automatic vehicle locator (AVL) application might be considered mission-critical.

However, what is considered a mission-critical application varies by industry. For this reason, there could be another type of business that also utilizes an AVL, but it is not necessarily classified as a mission critical application because its failure would not result in significant negative consequences, particularly negative financial consequences.

What Is a Mission Critical Employee?

Mission critical employees are positions that must be filled in order for an organization to perform its core mission.

What Is the Difference Between Mission Critical and Mission Essential?

Within the U.S. military, mission critical refers to any job functions that are identified as critical to the performance of the agency's (specifically, the U.S. Air Force's) mission.

In addition, some U.S. military defense contractors have a clause in their contracts that designate their role as having "mission-essential" functions. This stipulation requires that, even during hazardous weather conditions or a pandemic, they must perform essential contractor services that support mission-essential functions.

Under this specific clause, mission essential functions are defined as, “those organizational activities that must be performed under all circumstances to achieve DoD [Department of Defense] component missions or responsibilities.” Without the fulfillment of these duties, the DoD’s ability to provide vital services or exercise authority, direction, and control is hindered.

Importantly, these clauses do not require contractors to perform all of their contracted services; rather, they are only required to perform those services that the contract specifically identifies as essential.

In relation to DoD Information Technology System Repositories (versus military personnel), the distinction between mission critical and mission essential is defined as follows: "Mission-critical information technology systems are necessary to continue warfighter operations and direct mission support of warfighter operations, while mission-essential information technology systems are basic and necessary to accomplish an organization’s mission."

Article Sources
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  1. BuzzFeed News. "The High Cost Of An Amazon Outage." Accessed July 8, 2021.

  2. Venture Beat. "5-minute outage costs Google $545,000 in revenue." Accessed July 8, 2021.

  3. Department of the Air Force. "MEMORANDUM FOR 375 AMW MISSION PARTNERS." Accessed July 15, 2021.

  4. Covington: Inside Government Contracts. "The Show Must Go On: Mission-Essential Services During the Coronavirus Outbreak." Accessed July 15, 2021.

  5. Department of Defense Office of Inspector General. "DoD Information Technology System Repositories DODIG-2018-154." Accessed July 15, 2021.

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