High Availability reality or false hope?

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With the increasing dominance of online commerce and integrated supply chain processes, high availability systems have rapidly risen to the top of the IT Directors agenda. Yet too many organisations are still languishing under the misconception that their extensive investment in data back up technology, from Network Attached Storage to Storage Area Networks, will provide rapid recovery in the event of system failure.

With recovery times on business critical systems such as Exchange varying from hours to days, this blithe assumption that a basic storage solution delivers robust, reliable, highly available systems could result in significant business damage should disaster or even simple downtime occur, argues Stephen Stobo, sales and marketing director, Neverfail Group.

Real Time Business

Storage volumes have escalated dramatically over the past few years, driven in part by the duplication of email based documentation but also by the need to retain corporate information for both compliance and business continuity. But if organisations are using storage solely to back up data, they are wasting their time, money and effort. Just what is the most important issue in todays business environment? In a highly competitive, cost sensitive and reputation based world it is providing users access to working applications in the event of downtime or a disaster, quickly and effectively and ideally, with as little manual intervention as possible.

Storage solutions provide nothing more than an excellent platform for backing up data. But data back up alone is no protection in the event of downtime however severe, planned or otherwise - nor does it provide a viable business continuity strategy. However fast the data may be recovered and to be frank that can be highly variable despite the real time technology touted by many storage vendors what value is that data if the organisation cannot also recover the servers, operating system and applications?

If these systems cannot also be recovered rapidly, what is the business implication? What cost in lost sales, damaged reputation or even internal productivity if it takes three, five, eight hours, even days, to recover? As one organisation discovered to the IT Directors surprise, and horror a simulated recovery took four days to bring back core applications such as Exchange. How can any business cope without email for four days, given global dependence upon the technology?

Storage Investment

Of course, for many organisations, the past few years have seen a massive investment in new storage technology in a bid to cope with storage volumes that many estimate double year on year. Storage Area Networks (SANs) are highly expensive, complex environments, hard to implement and costly to manage however they provide an essential platform for meeting compliance requirements, from Sarbanes Oxley to Financial Services Association (FSA), delivering the full audit trail and data traceability.

It is no surprise that many organisations blithely assume these investments in state of the art storage technology will also address the escalating requirement for business continuity and high availability. But this is simply not the case: organisations using storage solutions to deliver high availability are kidding themselves and, should disaster occur, will face a rude and expensive awakening. Indeed, by investing in a single, integrated storage platform, organisations are actually adding to business risk by creating a single point of failure that has an implication for cross-organisational performance and productivity.

And the misconception about this reliance upon data back up is extraordinary given the growing awareness of the high availability system imperative. According to the 2005 IT Industry Trends Study, improving business continuity is the number two IT priority (after security), the first time this issue has hit the top three.

There is clearly a demand for some rapid market education and recognition of two key points. Firstly, while storage technology can provide excellent, high quality data back up, rapid recovery is not a given. Secondly, rapid data recovery is not the only component of high availability: organisations need to have technology in place that automates the recovery process and addresses the availability of operating system, server and applications.

Replication & Fail Over

So what are the options for organisations that need to ensure rapid recovery of both data and core systems especially for those that cannot justify either expensive clustering solutions or the complete replication of the SAN environment that is even more expensive in both storage technology and additional investment in bandwidth?

One alternative is to use automated fail-over technology. Already proven in a hardware, operating system and Exchange situation, this technology is now available as a black box storage solution. If the primary storage platform fails, the system automatically fails over to the back up system and keeps running until the primary platform is recovered. Critically, this approach does not require organisations to invest in a replica of the primary environment; indeed even a SAN can use standard iSCSI storage as a secondary platform, providing high availability at a cost that is viable to the majority of medium sized organisations.

Critically, not only does this fail-over approach ensure there is no single point of failure and offer the resilience and reliability required to ensure high availability, but the fail over process is automated, enabling the IT department to prioritise activity in line with business need, rather than constantly fire fighting to address evolving problems. And this is key; even those storage vendors that can deliver in a real environment rapid data recovery cannot do so without manual intervention. In the event of a major system failure, the IT department simply cannot manually recover every element of the infrastructure from Exchange server to SAN fast enough to meet current high availability demands.

Complete Solution

For the IT Director, the demands for high availability are now coming from every aspect of the business from the pressing need to retain email communications to the finance system, CRM application and ERP software. There is no way any IT department can restore all of these systems fast enough to meet business requirements if reliant upon manual intervention for every component of the infrastructure, from data to applications. And the business implications of this failure will be significant in this increasingly online, real time environment.

But, however damaging downtime can be to a business, few IT Directors are willing or able to blow the budget on expensive clustering or SAN replication. Yet by combining an automated high availability storage solution with automated fail over of key applications, such as Exchange, an IT Director can avoid these job threatening decisions and provide the level of system availability that is fast becoming prerequisite for successful business operation.

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