Thursday, July 16, 2009

Is Five 9s the Right Goal in a Cloud Computing World?

I used to be involved running the network for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Before its demise, DEC has a wonderful network and a great network organization. We prided ourselves on keeping an expansive international network up and running back in the 1980s when networks broke a whole lot more than they do currently.

As part of DEC culture, the network organization went to Total Quality Management (TQM) training. I remember developing a six sigma plan for the network. The goal of the plan was to define what a network defect was and then to eliminate virtually all instances of those defects. IT professionals don’t use the phrase six sigma today as much as we once did. However, the phrase five 9s is extremely common and at one level the two phrases reflect the same concept. That concept is that IT is to be as available as possible. When I worked at DEC, nobody ever questioned that concept.

Earlier this week I was at Network World’s IT Roadmap conference in Philadelphia. The keynote speaker was Peter Whatnell. Whatnell is the Chief Information Officer at Sunoco. Peter stated that like most IT organizations they are under great pressure to reduce cost. One of the steps that they are taking to save money is to actually reduce the availability of some of their services. The example that Whatnell gave was that in order to provide 99.99% server availability they had to deploy clustering and other technologies that drove up the cost. While they still do that for the servers the support certain applications, have cut back this approach and now a lot more of their servers are designed to run at something closer to 99% availability.

As we enter the world of cloud computing, we need to acknowledge that we are not going to have the same levels of availability and performance that we have in the current environment. For example, one of my clients showed me the SLA that they have with the Software as a Service (SaaS) vendor It read “We will take all reasonable actions to ensure that the service is available 7 x 24.” When I first read the SLA I was amazed at how vacuous it was. My amazement has since lessened. Clearly the Fortune 500 are not going to run certain critical business processes using SaaS nor are they going to store their most critical data at Amazon. However, it will be curious to see how many IT organizations go down the path suggested by Whatnell. That path being that it is ok to accept lower availability and performance if the cost savings are great enough.

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