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March 14, 2011

Calamities, Contingencies and the Cloud

Nicole Hemsoth

As the real and figurative dust begins to settle in Japan following the massive earthquake and tsunami, the grim evaluation of damage is just beginning in terms of life, property and increasingly, business.

Today Japanese markets went live and back to work and to some extent, so did some of the country’s largest companies. Honda, Sony and others were forced to shut down for an extended period but otherwise Japan has been trying to push forward, if not with a sense of sad defiance in the face of the mounting tragedies—human, environmental, structural and otherwise.

The assessments extend far beyond Japan’s borders, at least on the human front as millions look to cloud-based platforms to share and receive important news and information from a broad spectrum of worldwide sources.   

As Dr. Jose Luis Vazquez-Poletti discussed this morning, “following the first hints of news about the tragedy in Japan, people around the world turned to the Internet to find different formats for information—not just mass media coverage, but also firsthand impressions left on personal websites, blogs and social media outlets…a combination social networks and the principles of cloud computing became the primary source for information gathering and sharing.”

Indeed, the convergence of cloud computing and the incredible breadth of tools to harness it for massive, real-time communication and collaboration shows the power of ICT developments like cloud-based services to aid during times of national emergency.

This communications side of the cloud story is striking in its scope; families and agencies sharing updates in near real-time, distributed coordination of search and rescue operations across any number of hosted platforms. However, there is another angle of cloud computing that emerges during major crises.

Reliance on clouds as the main artery for communications and even business continuity following mobile phone and related disruptions is advantageous but what if those networks or data storehouses are obliterated or at worst, temporarily knocked out following exhaustion of backup power?

Just as with many other critical elements of infrastructure, a few of Japan’s datacenters have been affected by the tragedy. Rather than being due to direct damage to structures, however, the failures appear to be due to rolling blackouts and extended power outages. While they are not as widespread as one might imagine given the scope and magnitude of the damage, this is nonetheless causing issues for those who rely on cloud-based services in the country.

ZDnet Japan has been maintaining an updated list of affected datacenters with short descriptions of current challenges showing that some datacenters are faring better than others. Overall, despite some serious breakdowns in ICT infrastructure, the country’s clouds have been protected by a variety of power and data backup methods.

According to reports, among the hardest hit in the data market was NTT Communications—one of Japan’s largest providers of data and communication services. On Friday they lost their IP-VPN connection and were closely monitoring the exterior of the building holding one of its datacenters. In a statement issued on Friday the company noted that “due to earthquakes in the Tohoku region NTT has failed in some of our services.” NTT apologized to its customers but claimed that backup power supplies for its other datacenters have extended capabilities.

Announcements from the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs have emerged about severed communication networks, including KDDI’s undersea cables.

Despite these and other major ICT infrastructure failures, there are a number of companies reassuring customers that even in the face of power loss their data is still safe.

Earlier this month Amazon Web Services announced the availability of its cloud computing services to the Tokyo area with the launch of a new datacenter. While the exact location of the data storehouse was withheld, in a statement about its new Japanese reach, one of Amazon’s spokespeople behind the move stated that “developers in Japan told me that latency and in-country data storage are of great importance to them.”

It is quite likely that, based on these specific concerns and the fact that they were highlighted in a relatively sparse release, the datacenter is located somewhere in the heart of Tokyo, which suffered a great deal of damage although not as much as other coastal cities touched by the massive tsunami.

According to Amazon, however, the datacenter has emerged unscathed and for all intents and purposes, its business as usual—at least in terms of its cloud offering in the region. Furthermore, as one might imagine, AWS has some exhaustive backup and recovery plans, including stores off-site and off-continent.

On its status page, which shows real-time outage or interruption events by region, Amazon’s services all seem to have the green light. However, it notes that while they do not believe there will be interruption is service, it is a possibility. As the company’s message to Asia-Pacific AWS users states:

 “There are planned Tokyo Electronic outages scheduled over the next few weeks, starting Monday morning (Japan time). We have been re-validating our back-up power capability so that customers have the least interruption possible.”

A number of U.S.-based companies are jumping into the fray to offer assistance to businesses, non-profits and government agencies via cloud-based software.  For instance, yesterday IBM Japan announced that it would be providing free LotusLive services until the end of July to ensure the necessary “means of information sharing and email targeted at local governments and nonprofit organization for supporting browser-based activities.”

Japan’s leading internet provider IIJ has stated that it is providing free access to cloud-based resources from its unaffected datacenter location from a rapidly-deployed server setup in the Kansai area it claims will be unaffected by power outages and rolling blackouts. Although the translation is approximate, the company notes that “traffic information and safety confirmation as well as railways operation are supported in this infrastructure for delivering information as quickly as needed—IIG is doing all it can to to support various server engineers.”

Microsoft had an office in one of the worst affected areas, Sendai. In addition to offering words of concern and condolences, the company announced that it would be providing monetary and software donations to Japan.

According to a report, this assistance includes free incident support for those with damaged facilities and “free temporary software licenses for customers, non-profits and relief agencies.”

Microsoft has also opened a cloud-based disaster recovery portal on its Windows Azure for officials to use for collaboration and communications.

Similar efforts were underway, although on a smaller scale, following New Zealand’s earthquake, which rocked Christchurch and put data backup worries on center stage. 

In fact, now that the tidal wave of shock is turning slowly into recognition of the gravity of the situation, today has sparked a number of conversations around the web highlighting the value of having a contingency  plan and reliable backup and recovery options. These have saved many of the datacenters, both in terms of backup power and datastores, but some companies that had been reliant on on-site systems might not have fared well.

Many of these same backup and recovery-related conversations emerged immediately following the Christchurch earthquake not long ago. ISC Research community manager Ullrich Loeffler predicted that many companies that were displaced after the tragedy were unlikely to reinvest in their own IT infrastructure. He stated that many of the companies that were forced to line up in queues to try to salvage hard drives and other physical information stores would begin considering the cloud option. Still, Loeffler made it clear that firms would turn to the cloud as a precautionary measure, explaining that “companies only tend to turn to cloud-based or hosted solutions when they need to refresh their systems.”

While Loeffler’s statement that the cloud is not a precautionary measure might ring true in the abstract, there were a number of tales of cloud-based backup and recovery solutions being deployed directly as precautionary measures. This was especially the case in Christchurch where businesses were given a wake-up call in the form of an initial, less severe quake that rocked the town—and swayed the confidence of a number of businesses with mission-critical data stores at the heart of their operations.

The New Zealand Herald reported on a number of companies that found that their decision to deploy cloud-based solutions saved their businesses following the destruction of their offices. Software company EMDA, which supplies software for supply chain and manufacturing businesses had just reevaluated its backup and recovery plan to include both on and off-site backups following the first earthquake.

Although the tragedy could have sparked a much more serious data problem, especially if the epicenter had been closer to Tokyo where a number of datacenters and communications hubs are centered, it does serve as a reminder about the value and risks associated with cloud-based business models. Chances are any organization that has decided to put all or some of its data in the cloud, especially public clouds, has granted significant attention to the issue of reliability and backup. Still, for smaller companies this might be a secondary consideration.

It is difficult to focus on this one element of a tragedy that is so broad in scope that it is almost impossible for the mind to process. We can take our cues from the strong decision to move forward with markets on this Monday following such dramatic loss of life and property, however, and look ahead to see how the challenges from this event can help other countries better prepare for disaster on the cloud and communications level.

Just as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan has caused a massive look inward for countries reliant on nuclear power, this should also be a living example of considering contingency planning options for data protection and loss prevention.