Monday, August 22, 2011

The difficult thing about back-ups


My back-up drive failed recently.

It was a lucky coincidence that I noticed this; despite grand intentions I’m lazy when it comes to backing things up and only think about it when I am panicking about typing ‘rm –rf’ in the wrong directory.

The drive failed when I was moving it across my study; I powered it down, unplugged it, moved it, plugged it back in and then fired it up again. Except it declined to fire up. It made a few pathetic wheezing sounds and gave up. After a few days of online searching I admitted defeat and contacted Lacie who eventually acknowledged it was faulty and issued an RMA. Four weeks later I had a repaired working drive in place (albeit having lost all of the original data). I am now able to return to my previous state of blissful ignorance.

The point of this little story? In a nutshell I think this summarises many enterprise’s attitude to back-ups. I know from personal experience of two organisations who notionally had a standard back-policy with regular full and incremental back-ups, which when the back-ups were needed, could not be retrieved because the back-up hardware had failed.

Then there is the recent case of Amazon. Running infrastructure as complicated and sophisticated as they do is fraught with risk so if I was one of their customer’s I would probably be thinking about having an iron-clad business continuity plan in place, but apparently even here back-up complacency reigns.

Why is this a big deal? Normal production systems are tested thoroughly prior to go-live and then tested on an on-going basis through production use. Any problem will be automatically detected or signalled by a user fairly quickly. However since back-up systems are only invoked by exception, the first time you know there is a problem is when you need them. The answer? Well, regular testing of a full restore from back-up seems like the obvious solution. There are some products on the market which claim to help but I remain somewhat sceptical of their efficacy.

Am I eating my own dog food? Alas I have regressed to my pre-failure days and have adopted the macho “my hardware never fails and I never type rm –rf by mistake” attitude. Some people never learn.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Government ICT Strategy

The recently published government ICT strategy makes interesting reading. The government is clearly trying to learn some of the lessons of previous failures, albeit without really getting to grips with the underlying reasons for these failures.

One of the government's explicit strategy statements makes very interesting reading:
The adoption of compulsory open standards will help government to avoid lengthy vendor lock-in, allowing the transfer of services or suppliers without excessive transition costs, loss of data or significant functionality.
Will open standards really do this?

Let's turn this on its head; what are the typical reasons for vendor lock-in? Here is my starter for 10 in no particular order:
  1. The software offers must-have features which competitors do not have.
  2. The organisation using the software has adapted its business processes to fit with how the software works.
  3. The organisation using the software has made a considerable investment in training its staff in how to use the software.
  4. The software is integrated with other systems that the organisation uses.
  5. Difficulty of data migration

Which of these will open standards help with? As far as I can tell only number 4; use of open standards in interface specifications should in principle allow substitutivity of standards-compliant components on either side of the interface. I say in principle because for any reasonably sophisticated enterprise system, an interface will be a key part of a business process, which will one way or another be organisation specific. It is typically a non-trivial task (in some cases impossible) to substitute another component into this business process without impacting the business process, leading to item 2 in the above list.

Don't get me wrong: open standards are great and to be applauded - I glory in my ability to choose my browser according to my mood. However let's not kid ourselves that be adopting them we are going to see a public sector IT world free of Oracle and MS Office any time soon.