Storm Weary Caribbean Considers High Availability Options
October 5, 2004 Alex Woodie
The recent spate of hurricanes in the Caribbean has taken a horrible toll on the area. People and businesses are still recovering from the sudden onslaught of big storms in August and September, while at the same time preparing for potentially more storms, as eight weeks still remain in the hurricane season. For data center operations, the storms have highlighted the importance of good disaster recovery procedures, as these Maximum Availability customers attest to.
Every region of the planet carries has its own unique geographical peculiarities, dangers, and disaster recovery scenarios. If your home or business is located in the Tornado Alley region of the United States, it would be wise to have a steel-plated room where people and valuable equipment can wait out a twister. There’s still no way to anticipate earthquakes, so one must be ready for them all of the time, especially in areas prone to them, such as California. Along the East Coast, homes and businesses must be prepared to wait out huge blizzards, which, scientists say, could increase in severity as a result of the global warming we are now experiencing.
Among the natural disasters, however, the hurricane stands alone in its capacity to destroy huge swaths of civilization. Thanks to satellites, hurricanes can no longer sneak up on us from under the cover of darkness, as one huge and deadly storm did in Galveston, Texas, in 1900. Satellites today give people the time to prepare for the storms and to evacuate the area, if necessary. But there’s only so much one can do.
In the islands of the Bahamas, for instance, people are usually forced to wait out the storm, as an evacuation of the country’s 300,000 citizens by air or land would be unfeasible. Because it is in a hurricane-prone region, buildings in the Bahamas are required to be able to withstand winds of 150 mile per hour, or a class five hurricane. Before this season, the Bahamas hadn’t experienced a hurricane since 2001, when Hurricane Michelle, a class one storm, hit the islands before going out to sea. So far in 2004, the Bahamas have already been hit by two hurricanes, one a class two storm and the other a class three.
One Bahamian company, Commonwealth Bank, implemented a new disaster recovery contingency plan last year. The bank, which holds more than $800 million in assets and runs Fiserv‘s banking application on two iSeries Model 810 servers, previously relied on tape backups for disaster protection. “We wanted to implement a plan in case something happened to our site,” says Felipe Vega, the bank’s IT manager. “We thought about flying the tapes to the United States, or something, but that didn’t work. So we started looking for data replication software and found *noMAX through the Web.”
Today Commonwealth Bank uses Maximum Availability’s remote journaling-based *noMAX software to replicate its data from its primary data center, in the Bahamian capital of Nassau, over high-speed fibre optic cable, to the second iSeries Model 810 located in a branch office a few miles away. “It’s very reliable software and quite easy to use,” Vega says of *noMAX. “Plus, the people from New Zealand were very helpful.”
In the beginning of September, class two Hurricane Frances battered the Bahamas. Three weeks later, a class three hurricane, Jeanne, following nearly the same path as Frances, swamped the Bahamas again, flooding several islands. Commonwealth Bank was hit hardest by Frances and temporarily lost communication with its hot site, while Jeanne was mostly a rain event, Vega says. “At one point, we were thinking about doing a roll swap [with Jeanne], but we didn’t have to,” he says. “The reality is, we haven’t had a chance to avoid a disaster.”
One hundred miles northwest of Nassau, Miami Children’s Hospital was also affected by Frances and Jeanne. “We lost power like 10 times,” says Dennis Gambill, an employee of hospital software developer McKesson, who works as the hospital’s MIS manager. “But they were minor to us; nothing horrible.”
In 2003, Gambill supervised the installation of *noMAX, on the hospital’s iSeries Model 820. Today, the hospital uses the software to replicate data from one storage pool to another. With *noMAX, the hospital’s nightly backup times have been reduced from an average of 30 to 45 minutes to less than three minutes, Gambill says. “We stop the replicating at midnight, back up with *noMAX, and we don’t have to worry about anything with the users,” he says. “It is a wonderful product. You won’t find a better product for the price. It’s inexpensive, simple, and it can’t be broken no matter how hard [the system operators] try, and they try.”
The worst thing that happened to the hospital during the hurricanes was the loss of a disk drive during one of the power outages, Gambill says. The hospital’s IT staff was in the middle of replacing an old UPS device when the power went out. Luckily the drive was part of a RAID array, so the hospital’s 750 GB of data, representing millions of records of children’s medical reports that must be kept for nearly 30 years, remained safe.
While *noMAX reduced backup times, the software was really designed to replicate data to a second, backup iSeries. Eventually, the plan is for Miami Children’s Hospital, which employs about 2,600 people, to install a second iSeries server when its contract with hot site provider SunGard runs out, Gambill says. There is also the possibility of setting up a nationwide network of McKesson users who could provide emergency services to other McKesson users in affected areas, he says.
“The last two hurricanes were so big, they made landfall 60 miles north of Miami, but we still felt them down here,” Gambill says. “I’m not convinced that if a hurricane came through and hit our data center, and took a hook northward, that it wouldn’t hit our backup data center. Bringing in a trailer with computers won’t work well, because you won’t be able to get a trailer through.”
The Caribbean is a hot area for Maximum Availability right now. “Several sites in the Caribbean have worked with IBM and Maximum Availability to implement *noMAX to protect their valuable IT data stored on their iSeries,” says Don Gerlach, an IBM Canada manager, who handles the Caribbean North District (IBM Canada handles the Caribbean region). “The value of this solution became painfully obvious this year as the Caribbean was ravaged by several hurricanes. We currently have *noMAX installed in several locations in the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Jamaica.”
Maximum Availability has also struck up a partnership with iSeries distributor Avnet that could pay dividends for the high availability software vendor, which has struggled for years to get recognition from IBM so that it can form partnerships with resellers and distributors. According to Maximum Availability’s marketing manager, Simon O’Sullivan, Avnet is working to promote *noMAX in affected areas through a new Hurricane Assistance Promotion.