Disaster Prevention in action, that's what Business Continuity Planning (BCP) really is. The science of determining ways to allow data-systems to continue working, even if an entire physical location is downed or destroyed, with the baseline idea being that data-systems are portable objects.
This is a fundamental shift in thinking from the days of mainframe-based enterprise computing, where the system was the hardware for the most part. Today the level of operating systems and software packages are considerably more important than hardware, as they determine the level of power of the system itself. Once business IT staff accepted this, the doors of BCP were flung wide open and the advent of the distributed data-system emerged.
No longer was the corporate data-system at the mercy of a single point of failure. The entire data-center could be grouped, clustered, and manipulated as a single entity to protect the data of the enterprise. For example, IT staffs formed load-balanced web-sites with groups of servers that could all share the load of a single or even multiple downed machines and created e-mail server groups that spanned the country, each one able to hold messages for an offline counterpart.
But, as with any great plan, there was one significant flaw -- the data-center could be the single point of failure. As we have seen recently in California, even the most redundant data-center can fall victim to a power grid failure, and when the diesel backup generators finally run out of power, the data-center, and corporate data, go offline. BCP had come a long way, but still had a long way to go before achieving the mythical "five nines."
Transcending Physical Boundaries
Stepping up, mega-storage companies like EMC produced storage systems that could replicate themselves to other data-centers, not located in the same physical vicinity -- a theory similar to that of what businesses used years before to protect physical data like punch-cards and hardcopy. Replicating meant the entire body of corporate data could be kept up to date in some other location, thereby protecting against the possibility of failure due to the loss of a physical location.
Initially it seemed like an ideal solution, but it was really only a reversion to Disaster Recovery, just on a much larger scale. The data was safe in a secondary location, but inaccessible because the servers were still located and attached to the primary storage device. So, until the primary location could be brought back online, the data was unavailable and the company was losing revenue.
Clustering, while a good solution for single-site High Availability, could not be stretched to multiple sites and therefore couldn't protect data in the event of the loss of any physical location. Another leap forward was required to fully address the situation.
Expanding on data replication, companies like NSI Software began to develop BCP software that allowed both the data-system and data to survive a physical site failure by transcending physical boundaries. Enabling the enterprise to eliminate the single point of failure in a cost-effective manor, real-time replication software products have made ensuring business continuity an attainable feat for businesses of all sizes.
With replication software, clusters no longer needed to be physically connected to a shared storage array, and with High Availability systems, stand-alone machines could stand in for each other no matter where they were physically located.
In addition, by utilizing platform and storage independent data structures, these replication products allowed IT staff to create duplicate hardware and software configurations in multiple physical locations that could share data and keep each other up-to-date. Now, systems could stand in for each other seamlessly on a moment's notice without end-users having to perform any tasks or even noticing the change. Essentially, the end user can continue to work, uninterrupted, while the data-systems handle all the tasks of taking over the data-processing load for their downed counterparts.
Examples of the value and capabilities of replication software are easy to see. Failure of an Exchange e-mail system in New York City can now seamlessly switch to a physical system in Detroit, without the CEO (or anyone else) missing a single message. Knowing the information is available, the IT staff can then correct the issues in NYC and fail-back the physical systems to restore them to their original state, without the pressure and rushing that often causes even more damaging mistakes than the original outage.
Finally, the goal of achieving the "five nines" can now be met, signaling the conclusion of a monumental paradigm shift from keeping everything on physical media that could be duplicated off-site to a digital world of self-healing data-systems that create the truly digital, always on enterprise.
Mike Talon has been working in the Information Technologies field for more than 10 years, specializing in data protection and disaster prevention. He currently works for NSI Software, a developer of data replication technologies and services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.