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Hosting Lessons from Harvey and Irma

September 19, 2017  |  Posted By: Greg Fennewald

Everyone was saddened to see the horrific destruction storms caused to Houston and Florida, including deaths and extensive property damage. It seems reasonable that the impact of these hurricanes was lessened by advanced notice and preparation – stockpiling supplies, evacuating the highest risk areas, and staging response resources to assist with recovery and rebuilding.

Data centers operate every day with a similar preparation mindset: diesel generators to provide power should the utility fail, batteries to keep servers running during a transition, potentially stored water or a well to replace municipal water service for cooling systems, and food and water for personnel unable to leave the location.

What happens when a “prepared” location such as a data center encounters a hurricane with strong winds, heavy rain, and extensive flooding? In some cases, the data center survives without impact, although there certainly will be outages and failures. Examples of data centers surviving Harvey in good shape can be seen here, while accounts of the service impacts caused by Hurricane Sandy can be seen here.

Data Center Points of Failure

Let’s examine what may enable a data center to survive without functional impact. Extensive risk investigation goes into site selection for data centers. Data centers are expensive to build with costs measured in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. The potential business impact of a failure can be costly with liquidated damage clauses in hosting contracts. These factors lead to data centers being located outside of flood plains, away from hazardous material routes, and stoutly constructed to endure storm winds likely in the region.

Losing utility power is regarded as a “when” not an “if” in the data center industry (be that an outage or a planned maintenance activity), and diesel generators are a common solution, often with 24 hours or more of fuel on hand and multiple replenishment contracts. Data centers can survive for days/weeks without utility power, and in some cases for months. How could flooding impact power? The service entrance for a data center, where the utility power is routed, is often buried underground. Utility power is likely to be lost during flooding, either from damage due to flooding or intentional actions to prevent damage by shutting down the local grid. A data center would operate on generator if the data center itself is not flooded, although fuel replenishment is not likely. If there are two feet of water in the main electrical room(s), the data center is going dark.

Many large data centers rely on evaporating water to cool the servers it hosts. Evaporative cooling is generally more energy efficient than other options, but introduces an additional risk to operations – water supply. In many locations, municipal water pressure is lost during an extend power outage. Data centers can mitigate this risk by using water storage tanks or water wells onsite. Like diesel generators, the data centers can operate normally for hours or days without municipal water. A data center should be outside the flood plain, able to operate without utility power or municipal water for hours or days, is structurally strong enough to handle the winds of a major storm – is there any other risk to mitigate? Network connectivity and bandwidth.

Most data centers need to communicate with other data centers to fulfill their OLAP or OLTP purpose. Without connectivity, services are not available. Data should be fine, but it is becoming increasingly stale. Transactions and traffic are done. Like utility power, network connections are usually buried. With distance and geographic limitations involved, network pathways may get flooded as may the facilities that aggregate and transmit the data. Telecom facilities generally have generators and other availability measures, but can be forced into less advantageous locations and may have a shorter runtime standard than a data center.

Data centers that are serious about availability generally have carrier diversity and physical pathway diversity to mitigate carrier outages and “backhoe fades”. This may help in the event of widespread flooding as well. The reality is a data center without connectivity is generally useless. All the risk mitigation going into structural design, power and cooling redundancy, and fire protection is moot if connectivity fails.

Preparing for the Inevitable

The best way to mitigate these risks is to not rely on a single data center location. One is none and two is one. Owned, colo, managed hosting, or cloud – be able to survive the loss of a single location. The RTO and RPO of the business will guide the choice of active – active, hot – cold, or data backup with an elastic compute response plan. Hurricanes can cause regional impact, such as Irma disrupting most of Florida. In years past, many companies decided to have two data center within 20 miles of each other to support synchronous data base replication. A primary site in one borough of New York City, and the DR site in a different borough. Replication options and data base management techniques have advanced sufficiently to allow far greater dispersion today. Avoid a regionally impacting event by choosing data centers in diverse regions.

Operating from 3 locations can be cheaper than 2, and can also improve customer satisfaction with reduced response times produced by serving customers from the nearest location. See Rule 12 in Scalability Rules. The ability to operate from multiple locations also enables a choice to adjust the redundancy of those locations. A combination of Tier II and III locations may be a more economical choice than a pair of Tier IV locations.

Developing a hosting plan can be complicated and frustrating, particularly since the core competency of your business is likely not data centers. AKF Partners can help – not only with hosting strategy, but also the product architecture and operational processes needed to weld infrastructure, architecture, and process into a seamless vehicle that delivers services to your clients with availability the market demands.

Hurricanes aren’t the only disasters that can take down your data center. Solar flares, runaway SUVs, civil disruption, tornadoes and localized power outages have all caused data centers to fail. Natural disasters of all types trail equipment failures and human error as causes of service impacting events (source: 365DataCenters). According to FEMA, 40% of businesses that close due to a disaster don’t reopen, and of those that do only 29% are in business two years after the disaster (source:  FEMA). Don’t be a statistic. AKF Partners can help you with the product architecture and data center planning necessary to survive nearly any disaster.

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