Designing for availability in the cloud

 
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iTnews' blueprint to cloud resiliency.

The multi-tenant (shared) nature of cloud computing platforms makes them notoriously prone to failure, as customers of Amazon, Microsoft and many others have learned the hard way.

Is it possible to design applications for high availability when they are hosted on these commodity IaaS (cloud computing) services?

Yes, you can. But you have to ask yourself some tough questions first. We've published this quick guide to cloud availability to get you started.

Over the next three pages we intend to:

  • Explore what questions need to be asked when designing for availability.
  • Provide three availability models or "patterns" for you to consider.
  • Rate some of the world's top IaaS providers according to the maturity of their availability tools.

 

PART ONE: A BYO AVAILABILITY PRIMER

What could possibly go wrong?  

The easiest way to design for availability in any system is to consider one simple question: “What could possibly go wrong?”

Murphy’s Law is a surprisingly effective design aid. Your starting point should be to find every way to break your application, and design a way to either prevent it from happening and the fastest way to recover from it.

There are two main problems you’ll need to deal with: being offline, and losing data. The most critical thing you need to consider is losing data, so let’s start with that first.

LOSING DATA

Losing data is the most common and most destructive form of outage. Computing equipment is generally pretty robust, but humans make mistakes all the time. You may have designed a brilliant system that instantaneously replicates your accounting database to four other locations worldwide.

Now you accidentally delete last month’s invoices. All four copies, worldwide, are gone, instantly.

Forget about backups

Having backups is not what you care about. What you care about is having restores.

My preferred backup solution is disk-to-disk-to-somewhere-else, or D2D2SE. Your primary copy of data is on disk somewhere in your active system. Your first backup is also on disk, either using a disk-to-disk copy, or better yet some sort of snapshot technology if your cloud provider supports it (and they should). Your third, and most important copy is Somewhere Else.

Why do I like this? Because disk is fast, cheap, and easy when it comes to restores. Most of the time, you notice important data is missing within an ohno-second. An ohno-second is the amount of time between when you realise you’re about to make a data-losing mistake (oh no!) and when your finger hits “Enter” and makes the mistake. You want the data back, and you want it now.

Snapshots are fast to take, and fast to restore from. No helpdesk tickets, no waiting around. Logging a ticket, mounting up a tape from last night, and waiting for the data to stream back takes a lot longer, and your time is valuable.

If you’re in the cloud, the Somewhere Else is vital. If your cloud provider is offline for a long time, or loses your data, no SLA in the world will help you. How long can you afford to pay lawyers arguing about SLA clauses if you don’t have a payroll system? Your Somewhere Else is a copy of your data that you control, ready to deploy onto a different cloud provider or your own servers, if you have to. You want to always have it outside the cloud for when disaster strikes.

Key Questions for your Cloud Provider: 

  • Does the service support disk snapshots for backups? How many, and how often?
  • How do I get my data out of this cloud and into another one?

DOWNTIME

You’re probably familiar with “five nines” or “four nines” uptime promises from cloud providers. Four nines, or 99.99 percent uptime, means your site would be offline for about half a second every hour, on average, or just over 8.5 seconds a day. Online cloud providers don’t provide anything like that sort of uptime. As previously reported by iTnews, you’re lucky if you get three nines, which means you’ll be down for one and a half minutes every day.

Disasters are actually quite rare. Losing an entire data centre almost never happens, while people accidentally deleting important data happens all the time. House insurance is important in case you have a fire, but take care climbing ladders to clean out your gutters.
(Australian Bureau of Statistics, Causes of Death 2008: Falls: 1,377; Smoke, fire and flames: 66).

Read on for what availability patterns you should consider...

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