Paul Oxley, product marketing manager at Wick Hill, says you could lose a lot of money if your Internet-based systems go off line or perform poorly. He explains how a 'high availability' policy could avoid this.
Every company these days is dependent on the Internet to a greater or lesser extent.
You may use it just for e-mail, you may have a company intranet. You may have regular Internet links for communicating with other businesses, suppliers or customers. You may well have a web site to provide information on your company or for full scale electronic commerce.
While the increased use of electronic communications has brought many benefits, it has also made us much more dependent on computer and electronic systems which have the potential to fail.
The non-availability of a company's intranet or e-mail could cause serious productivity problems or result in lost orders. The loss of a web server, a web link or a firewall can cause more than just inconvenience – it can cost money.
Just how much money you could lose is simple to calculate. If you lose a firewall, for instance, just take the value of transactions carried out over a given period of time. Estimate how long it might take to get the firewall up and running again if it fails. Multiply one figure by the other.
Can you afford to lose this revenue? Customers may not come back later once the firewall is up again. That business could be lost forever. Similarly, a poorly functioning web site, which becomes impossibly slow at peak times, can result in disillusioned customers who go permanently elsewhere.
Relying on electronic communications exposes companies to a variety of security risks such as hackers and viruses. These can slow down a company's operations or at worst completely paralyse them making the company effectively unable to trade.
Although companies have always been concerned with contingency planning for loss of systems and for major disasters, the electronic age has brought a heightened need to keep systems functioning and the growth of what has become known as 'high availability'.
'High availability' is about keeping your computer network running efficiently at all times, and making sure that. if things go wrong, there is the absolute minimum of downtime.
E-commerce in particular has brought a need to have 24 hour, 365 days per year optimum availability, as companies trading on the web may have customers world wide. Security threats from hackers can happen at any time of the day or night, so firewall protection needs to be ongoing. Gaps in protection can have serious consequences.
There are three main ways in which IT managers can promote 'high availability' of web-based systems. One is in the use of load balancing tools, the second is to use duplicate equipment or services, and the third is to use measurement tools.
Load balancing tools are rapidly becoming available to help spread the load around the network to promote optimum performance. So if, for example, you web activity is extremely heavy at one particular time, the load can be spread across a number of web servers so a bottleneck isn't created at one particular point. Similarly, for security, you can spread the load across a number of firewalls in case something happens at one particular point.
Duplicate equipment or services
Duplicating systems has always been a method of ensuring continuity. The latest 'high availability' solutions aim for automatic duplication with a stand-by product, which takes over should the first fail for any reason.
For example, the WatchGuard LiveSecurity system (a firewall-based Internet security system which includes a hardware 'firebox' and firewall software) offers a 'high availability' option involving a second 'firebox' which acts as a standby. The high availability software monitors the primary firebox and if at any time it fails to respond, the secondary box takes over the role as the main firewall within seconds.
Internet service provision is a key part of the on-line world The 'high availability' option is to have two ISPs and a solution which monitors the performance of each, so that one can take over if the other fails to provide the necessary service. This may save you the estimated £5,000 per hour it can cost a company when it loses its Internet connection. Servers supporting key applications can also be duplicated and switched if one fails.
A key element in maintaining high availability is to actually monitor and measure the performance of your systems. Measuring will help you understand what the problems are. If your measurement tools show you that web site response time is poor at certain times, you can assess how much that is costing and justify any expenditure needed to correct the problem.
If you rely on an ISP to manage your web site, you are not necessarily going to know when your site is down. So you need to do some measuring yourself. If you know immediately of any difficulties, you can take appropriate measures straight away.
Knowing that your high availability solution will take over if there is a problem and ensure that your e-business is kept in business, allows you to sleep more soundly at night. You can be safe in the knowledge that should the very worst happen, the system will kick in and keep things running smoothly.
High availability is all about maintaining optimum performance and reducing the downtime of any key e-business infrastructure. It's about ensuring that your customers get the same quality of service from your e-business which they have come to expect from your traditional business. In today's Internet age, high availability is a necessity for any business that relies on constant connectivity.
Paul Oxley is product marketing manager for Wick Hill, a company specialising in infrastructure solutions for ebusiness. The company provides a range of solutions in the areas of web performance, web management and web security. Tel:01483 466500, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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