Charles Duncombe, technical and marketing director at luxury online travel agency holidaysplease.com, tells a salutary tale of the risks of outsourcing your business-critical functions
It goes without saying that a web presence is crucial for most businesses these days.
Your company’s servers can run some of your most business-critical functions such as your website, intranet, e mail, CRM and accounts package.
It’s therefore no wonder that most companies host their servers with a third party, professional hosting company, rather than the good old days when it would be whirring away in the corner of the staff room.
You need to be careful though when choosing a hosting company because even the largest hosting companies is only as strong as its weakest link.
UK Fast shut down
In December 2017 one of the UK’s largest hosting companies UK Fast, suffered a power failure.
This in itself should not have caused any issues for any of their 2,500-plus clients, as they boast three emergency backup generators designed to kick in at the necessary time.
However, diesel generators require a process and time to start and synchronise. Meanwhile, the whole hosting centre is powered on nothing more than batteries, believe it or not.
In UK Fast’s case they only had around ten minutes of battery power and so within that amount of time they had to detect the power loss, alert the necessary people, get them to the generators, turn the generators on, check them and synchronise the power output.
They didn’t do it in time and, as a result, after 12 minutes the batteries ran out of power together with the lights, servers and everything electrical at three data centres. Thousands of servers, websites and email services died instantly.
With clients, including the NHS, this was no trivial matter.
The problem was compounded when the servers and firewalls could not handle the disorderly shutdown.
Many lost their configurations which meant when the power came back on, technicians had to manually go around servers re-configuring them.
How long did this reboot process last for clients? A few minutes? An hour? No. For some clients their server didn’t go back live for over 12 hours.
This was despite the company saying in the first hour of the downtime that they only had a few more devices to power up.
Do 100% uptime service level agreements help?
In the UK Fast case the affected customers had an Service Level Agreement (SLA) that offered 100% uptime.
However, the terms and conditions of this SLA will only refund thirtieth of your monthly hosting cost for every hour of downtime.
So, for a £500-a-month hosting contract you would be due as little as £17 per hour of downtime.
While at the same time you could be losing thousands of pounds’ worth of revenue.
How can you guard against this problem?
Here are three things that you could do to stop this problem from happening to you:
1) When signing up with a hosting company ask them whether they have two independent power sources to their data centre at different physical entry points so if someone cuts through one they have a spare before they have to rely on batteries and generators.
2) Ask how long the batteries will last for if the power goes out. Then ask what the procedure is for starting and synchronising the generators. You can then see whether the battery time seems reasonable to cover the time to get the generators going.
3) Think about hosting a ‘mirrored server’ in another data centre with a different hosting company. In the case of a shutdown at one data centre you can point your domain name to the other server. Cloud-based services are making this more and more cost effective these days.
Otherwise it’s just a case of relying on good old battery power, and anyone with a smartphone these days knows how quickly that can disappear.