High Availability–It’s Not All About The Hardware/Software

As I write this I’m sitting my my house working with the last hour of juice left in my laptop. We had a major Snow + Seattle = Bad Newssnowstorm here in the Seattle area which was followed by a big ice storm and some heavy winds, all of which have coincided to knock out power to over 200,000 homes. I’ve been without power for over 75 hours now and it’s given me a lot of time to think about multiple facets of High Availability (HA) and Disaster Recovery (DR).

HA/DR are critical items for all companies. HA in various degrees, but most certainly DR and the ability to provide some kind of business continuity model. Different companies, large and small, have different requirements around HA/DR. Some could easily remain down for a couple of days with no lingering effects, others cannot sustain downtime on their most critical systems of more than a couple of minutes. Based upon those requirements (and any budget constraints) a company could implement HA/DR using Failover Clustering, Mirroring, Log Shipping, SAN Replication, Peer-to-Peer Replication, VMotion or some other technology.

 

 

Where HA/DR often falls down

This is all good and well but what about the people that you need in order to get things up and running, the folks that you need in order to provide you with ongoing support in the event that a situation arises where you have to go to your DR site, or provide support for that critical system where a mirror has failed?

In the last 80 hours I have been called by the NOC at work stating that they have an issue. I don’t have power at home so my internet access is off. I don’t have sufficient power in my phone to tether it (don’t tell the wireless company I can do that) and it would take 4 hours sitting in the car to get sufficient power to allow me to do that. I do have a mobile broadband USB device, however I’m not getting coverage in my house right now from that carrier and I have been unable to get out of my road. In other words in the whole HA/DR side of things I’m a single point of failure. Luckily I have a colleague with power who I was able to point the NOC to in order to provide resolution to the issue.

My colleague and I live less than 5 miles apart, we are just luckily on different circuits and substations for the power company. If neither of us had been able to dial in then the problem would not have been resolved.

 

If you truly want to implement HA/DR you need to go further than just looking at your hardware infrastructure or the way that your software is setup. It means more than your DNS configuration and your Active Directory setup. There’s more to it than setting a Failover Partner in your application connection string. It’s about the people that you need to support these things!

 

 

Artificial limitations

I’ve been a DBA for about 12 years now. I’ve not been hands on with a server since doing datacenter implementation work about 5 years ago. Other than in very small shops it’s rare that a DBA touches a server, most don’t even have access to the datacenter in which their database servers reside. There has been a huge move towards setup in Colocation Datacenters (CoLo’s) over the last few years, meaning that more often than not the datacenter where you servers reside are probably not even in the same physical building that you are. There is also the current move to the Cloud initiative that’s gaining some traction. Given all of this information I ask you this:

Why are DBAs so often tied to a physical location for work?

 

This is a serious question. There are so few telecommuting options for DBAs out there. You can look on the job boards and see virtually none. There’s a lot of relocation opportunities if you want to move to another state, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. If you are going to geographically disperse your hardware due to HA/DR needs why would you not do that same for the teams that have to support it?

So many companies point blank refuse to even entertain the idea of telecommuters from another state (heck the vast majority won’t even contemplate allowing IT support staff to work from home a couple of days a week).

The same companies that happily outsource all development processes to an unknown entity in India or China refuse to entertain the idea of allowing Windows/Unix Admins or DBAs to telecommute.

 

I feel that it is somewhat ironic that the same people that expect you to come to the office and be tied to a physical location also have you be on call so that you can provide remote support when something goes wrong.

 

 

Moving beyond the office

Forcing IT support staff to come to a physical location 5 days a week makes little to no sense to me. I can understand the desire to have folks in the same physical location but as your organization grows it really needs to find a way to get past that mentality. There are various options such as LiveMeeting or GoToMeeting that can provide a telepresence in meetings for people that work remotely. Instant Messaging can be used to constantly keep people in touch. Services such as Yammer can be used to quickly and easily provide collaborative thought outside of meetings.

Looking at my current situation, if my colleague and I had both been without power we would have had no way to provide support. Our servers sit in a CoLo that we don’t have access to so even if we could have gotten there, we would have had no hands on way to work with the servers.

Now imagine we had a third person on the team that lived and worked in another state (or that the second person was living in another state and telecommuted in). Even with power down for me (or the entire state) we would still have someone available to provide support (unless by extremely unusual circumstances they were also down). With a remote DR site they could have effected whatever steps were necessary to bring that online and check that things were working ok.

Let’s look at this from another angle. I’m in the Pacific Time Zone and get to work usually 7:00-7:30am and leave 4:30-5:00pm. If we had someone working in the Eastern Time Zone and they worked the same hours we would have coverage (without emergencies handled by being on call) from 4am PST – 4:30pm PST. That’s an extra 3 hours of standard DBA coverage. Imagine how much more work could get done. How overnight problems could be identified and resolved earlier?

We live in a global society and the company that I work for does business internationally. Would it not make a lot more sense to provide a wider margin of coverage? Think about it, it would also improve the quality of life for anyone that had to be on call. For me the worst time to get called out is about 4am as I’ll never get back to sleep. If there was someone already in the office on the east coast I wouldn’t need to get called out. The same for them with evening plans. They could go out to dinner or a movie knowing that they wouldn’t have to worry about missing a call.

 

 

TL;DR

It’s the 21st century, there are many options to prevent the need for anyone to be physically tied to an office location (certainly amongst IT staff). In order to provide higher levels of support to companies they really need to embrace telecommuting options beyond providing emergency support.

 

 

Late Note: After 80 hours PSE were able to restore power to my neighborhood. Throughout the outage PSE did a fantastic job of handling things. Ultimately over 375,000 were without power at one time or another. PSE provided constant information wherever possible via their Twitter feed and website. They brought in crews from around the country to assist in the restoration efforts. All in all I think they handled things really well. I have no complaints with how they handled any of this. (I just wish I’d been closer to the top of the restore list)

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