Many times, terms like “High Availability” and “Fault Tolerance” get thrown around as though they were the same thing. In fact, the term “fault tolerant” can mean different things to different people – and much like the terms “portal,” or “cloud,” it’s important to be clear about exactly what someone means by the term “fault tolerant.”
As part of our continuing efforts to guide you through the jargon jungle, we would like to discuss redundancy, fault tolerance, failover, and high availability, and we’d like to add one more term: continuous availability.
Our friends at Marathon Technologies shared the following graphic, which shows how IDC classifies the levels of availability:
Redundancy is simply a way of saying that you are duplicating critical components in an attempt to eliminate single points of failure. Multiple power supplies, hot-plug disk drive arrays, multi-pathing with additional switches, and even duplicate servers are all part of building redundant systems.
Unfortunately, there are some failures, particularly if we’re talking about server hardware, that can take a system down regardless of how much you’ve tried to make it redundant. You can build a server with redundant hot-plug power supplies and redundant hot-plug disk drives, and still have the system go down if the motherboard fails – not likely, but still possible. And if it does happen, the server is down. That’s why IDC classifies this as “Availability Level 1” (“AL1” on the graphic)…just one level above no protection at all.
The next step up is some kind of failover solution. If a server experiences a catastrophic failure, the work loads are “failed over” to a system that is capable of supporting those workloads. Depending on those work loads, and what kind of fail-over solution you have, that process can take anywhere from minutes to hours. If you’re at “AL2,” and you’ve replicated your data using, say, SAN replication or some kind of server-to-server replication, it could take a considerable amount of time to actually get things running again. If your servers are virtualized, with multiple virtualization hosts running against a shared storage repository, you may be able to configure your virtualization infrastructure to automatically restart a critical workload on a surviving host if the host it was running on experiences a catastrophic failure – meaning that your critical system is back up and on-line in the amount of time it takes the system to reboot – typically 5 to 10 minutes.
If you’re using clustering technology, your cluster may be able to fail over in a matter of seconds (“AL3” on the graphic). Microsoft server clustering is a classic example of this. Of course, it means that your application has to be cluster-aware, you have to be running Windows Enterprise Edition, and you may have to purchase multiple licenses for your application as well. And managing a cluster is not trivial, particularly when you’ve fixed whatever failed and it’s time to unwind all the stuff that happened when you failed over. And your application was still unavailable during whatever interval of time was required for the cluster to detect the failure and complete the failover process.
You could argue that a fail over of 5 minutes or less equals a highly available system, and indeed there are probably many cases where you wouldn’t need anything better than that. But it is not truly fault tolerant. It’s probably not good enough if you are, say, running a security application that’s controlling the smart-card access to secured areas in an airport, or a video surveillance system that sufficiently critical that you can’t afford to have a 5-minute gap in your video record, or a process control system where a five minute halt means you’ve lost the integrity of your work in process and potentially have to discard thousands of dollars worth of raw material and lose thousands more in lost productivity while you clean out your assembly line and restart it.
That brings us to the concept of continuous availability. This is the highest level of availability, and what we consider to be true fault tolerance. Instead of simply failing workloads over, this level allows for continuous processing without disruption of access to those workloads. Since there is no disruption in service there is no data loss, no loss of productivity and no waiting for your systems to restart your workloads.
So all this leads to the question of what your business needs.
Do you have applications that are critical to your organization? If those applications go down how long could you afford to be without access to them? If those applications go down how much data can you afford to lose? 5 minutes? An hour? And, most importantly, what does it cost you if that application is unavailable for a period of time? Do you know, or can you calculate it?
This is another way to ask what the requirements are for your “RTO” (“Recovery Time Objective” – i.e., how long, when a system goes down, do you have before you must be back up) and “RPO” (“Recovery Point Objective” – i.e., when you do get the system back up, how much data it is OK to have lost in the process). We’ve discussed these concepts in previous posts. These are questions that only you can answer, and the answers are significantly different depending on your business model. If you’re a small business, and your accounting server goes down, and all it means is that you have to wait until tomorrow to enter today’s transactions, it’s a far different situation from a major bank that is processing millions of dollars in credit card transactions.
If you can satisfy your business needs by deploying one of the lower levels of availability, great! Just don’t settle for an AL1 or even an AL3 solution if what your business truly demands is continuous availability.