Saturday, January 11, 2014

Cross-linking to the Nexbridge Site

Hi Everyone. Well, I'm back at it. But this time, we're moving our content over to the Nexbridge website, since this is actually more important to that business as of 2014 that it was before. Come on over and register at our brand new site.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Been Away, But Coming Back!

The World of the Indestructible has seen a lot of changes in the past year. We've had some significant cloud failures, changes in C-level people at major computer companies, and very sadly, a loss of one of the icons of personal computing. That reminds us all that nothing and no one is truly indestructible. We'll miss you, Steve, but your contribution will be remembered.

More to come soon.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Indestructible Intersect Point

I’m writing this blog while watching the first game of the Montreal Canadiens’ playoff hopes. There was a time when I was growing up when they were virtually undefeatable. We can only hope now. Yes, I’m a fan. Is there a relationship? Probably not, but who knows? I'm also still snickering at the maintenance outage that the hosting site for this blog had on Thursday morning. Does anyone see the irony in that?

To continue where I was last week, improving availability is typically an exponential cost function, where each 9 of availability costs substantially more than all the previous 9’s combined. So at some point you get to diminishing returns where it costs you more than it’s worth.

But what if you looked at the problem from the other direction, specifically assuming that the system will never go down, and work backwards? Wouldn’t that be unattainable and cost an infinite amount of money? If you come at it from the wrong way, starting from an unreliable system and trying to make it perfect, you’ll never get there – yes, that’s a debatable point, so go ahead and argue with me. So, start from the assumption that outages are unacceptable right from inception. There’s lots of stuff you’ll need and have to invest, but it’s actually a quantifiable cost that you can get to using traditional project budgeting techniques. Traffic routing, reliable platforms, sophisticated version control are all elements of it. Infrastructure is a huge part of the cost, as is cultural change in the operations and development groups – we’ll go there later – but is it worth it?

Here’s another cost graph where the cost of indestructibility is added to last week’s picture. Strangely, it’s a straight line. It makes no difference in the cost whether you run an indestructible solution 7x24x365.25 or 20 hours a day. So again, why bother?

In many situations these days, installation can take days, not hours. Try renormalizing a multi-terabyte-size database in your normal outage window. You can’t. It doesn’t matter whether you are at 99.9999% or 99.99%. Indestructibility means you have to have the ability to perform the renormalization while the system is up – a daunting task, but possible.

What the cost curve shows is what I call the Indestructibility Intersect Point, let’s say iIP to coin an acronym. It’s where the availability curve and the indestructibility curve meet. If you’re indestructibility investment is less than your outage cost, which is can easily be (again, you know who you are out there), why bother chasing the 9’s curve? Sometimes the iIP will be above the outage cost. That’s when you don’t bother. So the question for you to think about – who knew there would be homework in a blog – is this: Do you know what your three costs are so that you can decide what to do?

What’s coming next? Well, we’re starting to get past the introduction, so I’m going to have to write about details soon. Stay tuned and give me feedback.

Copyright © 2009 Randall S. Becker.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Indestructibility vs. Availability

An interesting perspective came from a discussion I had recently with Richard Buckle of the Real Time View ( We talked about a major difference in perspective between highly/continuously available systems and indestructible systems. In the case of indestructibility, people take the position that the system will always be running, forever, right from the beginning. It’s the core assumption. How you build your infrastructure, software, and platforms needs to keep that firmly in mind right from the initial concept. With highly available systems, people start with a trade-off of what is good enough vs. cost; whether that’s four 9’s, five 9’s, or better. The tradeoffs made during a project come with how many nines are people willing to pay for. So it gives marketing people a really interesting pitch:

We can give you a brand new system that has five 9’s of availability, and it will only cost you ___.

Sure they can, but who pays for the other changes. You know, the small stuff, like retraining everyone, change management, business process reengineering (BPR), and testing cycles – all the your mileage may vary costs that somehow are always much bigger than anyone expects and often larger than the technology outlay to get you that extra 9 in the first place. At some point, and it’s very personal for your organization, the cost of indestructibility is actually less than chasing the exponential 9’s curve when you start from a system that is fundamentally fragile.

Now, suppose you’ve got a system that is happily running along at 99.99% of the time, and somebody figured out that every minute of outage costs your company twenty million dollars in penalties (You know who you are out there), and you’ve had outages. Or worse, suppose your outages are larger than that, and you cross the critical fifteen-minutes-down-and-lose-your-charter line. In order to add another 9 to your availability numbers, you’re going to have to rework your environment, maybe change platforms, change your processes, rewrite your software, build new deployment technology, get user acceptance testing signoffs, and worse, try to find funding in the organization to make all that happen. That’s pretty daunting. The fear of having to go through that for every nine is what led me down the indestructibility path in the first place. Organizational change is far harder than technological change, but that’s often what we have to do to add that elusive and expensive additional 9.

To illustrate this point, here’s a sample graph of the risks/rewards of availability. Next time, I’ll talk more about this cost function and what it looks like in the indestructible world. You might be very surprised.

Copyright © 2009 Randall S. Becker.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Comparison of Availabilities

I was recently asked a good question by one of the readers: “What is indestructible computing, and why should I care?” It’s a good question. Here are a few common terms. What you should keep in firmly in mind is that whatever aspect a system you look at, the actual service level you experience is usually the weakest of your components. Guess which aspect one is almost always the weakest? If you’ve been following the blog, you already know: software change.

General Purpose Computing

Well, you’re probably reading this blog from a general purpose environment. A workstation or laptop can be considered general purpose hardware. Your browser could probably be considered general purpose software. The combination of the two gives you a general purpose environment.

Highly Availability Systems

These systems are available most of the time – generally 99.99% of the time, or slightly under 5 minutes of unplanned or planned downtime a month. Banking systems are typical of these. Fitting maintenance into even a five minute window is difficult, particularly when you’re upgrading disks or restructuring your Operational Data Store (ODS).

Continuously Available Systems

These systems are available virtually all of the time – generally 99.999% of the time (about 30 seconds of down-time). Extensive use of independent components allows these systems to operate virtually without any unplanned outages. Planned outages do occur for upgrades, but the window for these outages is very small. There’s a lot of confusion between Highly Available and Continuously Available systems, the lines are pretty blurry, and I won’t really differentiate between them, much. That there is even a distinction is arguable.

Critical Systems

These systems include some of the obvious life-critical systems: flight control systems; rockets; many health monitor devices. Systems like this do not have the same level of long-term availability that continuously available systems have, but during their duty cycle, no outage is permitted at all. Fortunately, no changes are generally permitted while the systems are up. How many launches were delayed because of sensor or software issues?

Long-Life Systems

In long-life systems, reliability is the number one priority. Unscheduled maintenance is usually impossible or cost-prohibitive. Scheduled maintenance is possible but not desirable, and usually involves only software components. During maintenance, rigorous testing is done to ensure that the system will function reliably when back online. Communication satellites and the Mars Explorers fall into this category. Even then, subtle defects, like miles vs. kilometres per hour in a calculation, can cause disastrous failures.

Indestructible Systems

A truly indestructible system builds on the best of all of these systems. The systems are expected to be long-life, yet dynamic. Change is not only possible, but expected. Yet, there are no unplanned outages and no planned outages. Not only small components, but major components like data centers can go offline without a perceived outage or noticeable reduction is service levels. Maintenance is done while the system is up.

And I don’t blame anyone for thinking indestructibility is unattainable. It’s very hard to get right and even then, it’s always possible that something will go wrong. In future posts I’ll go into what it takes to make this work. Hopefully you’ll see that indestructible systems are practical in the real world and understand what it takes to make them work for you.

The next post will go into the starting points of view for building these systems and how money gets wrapped up in it.

Copyright © 2009 Randall S. Becker.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Blog Schedule

Hi Everyone. I've already had a few requests for topics, subjects, and information; so don't worry, I'll get there. One important topic in a blog is scheduling. I'm going to try to post a new blog about once a week (at least), usually some time on the weekend. So don't get too far behind. And, if I get too far behind, don't hesitate to nag me.
Indestructibility is an important topic. It starts from fundamental position that systems should always be available instead of looking at how many 9's you can stick on the end of a marketing statistic. Let's keep our systems (and discussions) running forever. It's not only about hardware or operating systems, although that's part of it. It's more about people, processes, and how you manage your critical business applications. And, while I have my preferred platforms, I'm going to try to keep things fairly platform-neutral.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Perceptions on Destruction

So, my system blew up. Ok, not really, but what does that mean to you? It means a lot of different things to me. Here are a few things that have gone wrong with my computers recently:

  • A monitor refused to power on at start-up.
  • A patch came in that caused a test system to refuse to boot.
  • A Software license key got corrupt – you’ve seen this one last week.
  • An external battery melted into a puddle of smoking silicon, plastic, cadmium, and goo.
  • A laptop wouldn’t even power up, but I had complete backups.

There are more, but I think you get the point: I’ve had my share of interesting experiences. So which one caused me the most grief (and embarrassment)? Well, I have many monitors, so losing one is never an issue. External batteries are interesting devices, but it only cost me some time on the plane that I used for some much needed rest anyway. The software vendor with the license key issue responded quickly, so, while I lost six hours, it was overnight and I should have been sleeping. So what bothers me the most?

From a convenience standpoint, there’s no question that losing my laptop was the worst. It took me six weeks to get back to full speed. However, the laptop was at the end of its life. I had a backup and lost virtually nothing. However, I couldn’t buy a comparable laptop that had the version of the operating system and productivity software I wanted on it. So reconstructing my environment was painful. But they key part of it was that I didn’t slow down at all for my customers. Not a single document or presentation revision was lost nor any e-mails nor anything else of importance.

From an operational standpoint, my company took a hit because one of our servers refused to boot. We had to run without our core document repository for almost a day. There was no issue in the hardware though. The problem was that an operating system patch came down automatically, but the BIOS couldn’t handle it. The hardware vendor issued a BIOS patch after the operating system patch came down and the problem was resolved. So who’s to blame?

In a word: Me. It’s always my fault. Hey, when you run a company, it’s your fault. Take the blame and move on. I’ve since made sure to disabled automatic patch installation on all my servers, and they now go through quarantine prior to installation on business critical systems. The operating system vendor has to take some of this for not testing their patch adequately on very common BIOS releases where their operating system is installed as OEM software. And it’s also the hardware vendor’s fault for not issuing the warning to their customers in advance of the issue. I can’t believe that we were the first company to encounter the problem – although, as some of you readers already know, it’s happened before.

So what did I learn? There was egg on my face, of course. My staff was pretty upset that the server was down, even if only for a short period. My customers didn’t notice, because it was an internal server, fortunately. But, mostly, that it’s not the hardware. The physical machine had no problems, although there were lots of amber warning lights flashing at me. It’s not the individual software components, because they all worked to specification, according to the vendors anyways. It was the inter-relationship between changing software components. And you know what? That’s usually what burns you. A few years ago, I gave a keynote where I asked the audience to choose which represented the most likely risk to their organization from a set of disaster scenarios, from an asteroid, nuclear war, floods, mould, and a picture of my (then toddler) son at a keyboard. I have to give the group (one of the HP NonStop user groups) credit for getting the answer right – my son. Changing software represents something far different than a disaster scenario. It is a quantifiable, known, and expected risk. Each time you change your system, you are putting your company, your customers, and your stakeholders at risk, because something may break. On the other side of the coin, not changing your system also puts the same group at risk of no longer being competitive. So what do you do?

It’s simply not an option to stand still. Could we surf the web if we all were using bicycle-chain driven computers or upgraded looms? I don’t know about you, but I can’t blog on a loom. My cats can blog on a rug, but that’s a different story and very messy. So change is something we want and have to embrace. Dealing with the risk-reward of moving forward is pervasive in technology. We can’t ignore it, so we have to change and put in new releases. The questions are where to find a balance and how to do it safely.

Stay tuned for upcoming entries where I’ll talk about this balance. The next blog will go into a comparison of different levels of expectation of reliability.

Copyright © 2009 Randall S. Becker.