When Data Centers Fail, Excuses Don't Cut It
This is no way to run an Internet. When an Amazon data center in northern Virginia went out of service on June 29 in the midst of severe thunderstorms that caused power outages, it was a very big deal because Amazon provides its cloud-based Web Services to marquee names like Instagram, Pinterest, and Netflix among many others. Adding insult to injury was the fact that this was the second outage at that facility in less than a month. We shouldn’t be living in a world where Internet users have to watch a weather map and wonder whether a cumulonimbus cloud hovering over the D.C. suburbs is going to derail their photo uploading and movie downloading. Aren’t these companies and their infrastructures supposed to be more failsafe than that? Of course they are. Any company that powers its products or services with the help of a third-party cloud provider needs a fail-over plan. The easiest strategy is to minimize downtime risk by spreading the work among several data centers (something Netflix actually does). In fact, Amazon gives its cloud customers the option of storing their data at eight separate data centers, but the cost is prohibitive for up-and-coming companies that turned to the cloud as a money-saving strategy in the first place. As for Amazon, there’s simply no excuse. Data center designs include uninterruptible power supply strategies, and if that means you have to install batteries that are as big as Mack trucks, then so be it. Whatever it takes. This is a business where 99 percent uptime doesn’t cut it. One can only hope that any government data centers that are vital to national security and that are very likely also located in northern Virginia rode out the storm better than Amazon’s did. If any good comes out of this inconvenient and embarrassing mess, it will be in the form of serious discussion about the robustness of cloud-based implementations and how we can make them more robust going forward. After all, business is heading to the cloud, government is heading to the cloud, and most of us have already arrived there with our personal photos and files and e-mail. We shouldn’t have to lose sleep over a little midnight thunder.