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High availability is a discipline within database technology that provides a solution to protect against data loss and against downtime, which is costly to mission-critical database systems. As such, we will provide details on what constitutes high availability and what does not. By having the proper framework, you will understand how to leverage Oracle RAC and auxiliary technologies including Oracle Data Guard to maximize the Return On Investment (ROI) for your data center environment.

High availability concepts

High availability provides data center environments that run mission-critical database applications with the resiliency to withstand failures that may occur due to natural, human, or environmental conditions. For example, if a hurricane wipes out the production data center that hosts a financial application’s production database, high availability would provide the much-needed protection to avoid data loss, minimize downtime, and maximize the availability of the firm’s resources and database applications. Let’s now move to the high availability concepts.

Planned versus unplanned downtime

The distinction needs to be made between planned downtime and unplanned downtime. In most cases, planned downtime is the result of maintenance that is disruptive to system operations and cannot be avoided with current system designs for a data center. An example of planned downtime would be a DBA maintenance activity such as database patching to an Oracle database, which would require taking an outage to take the system offline for a period of time. From the database administrator’s perspective, planned downtime situations usually are the result of management-initiated events.

On the other hand, unplanned downtime issues frequently occur due to a physical event caused by a hardware, software, or environmental failure or caused by human error. A few examples of unplanned downtime events include hardware server component failures such as CPU, disk, or power outages.

Most data centers will exclude planned downtime from the high availability factor in terms of calculating the current total availability percentage. Even so, both planned and unplanned maintenance windows affect high availability. For instance, database upgrades require a few hours of downtime. Another example would be a SAN replacement. Such items make comprehensive four nine solutions nigh impossible to implement without additional considerations. The fact is that implementing a true 100% high availability is nearly impossible without exorbitant costs. To have complete high availability for all components within the data center requires an architecture for all systems and databases that eliminates any Single Point of Failure (SPOF) and allows for total online availability for all server hardware, network, operating systems, applications, and database systems.

Service Level Agreements for high availability

When it comes to determining high availability ratios, this is often expressed as the percentage of uptime in a given year. The following table shows the approximate downtime that is allowed for a specific percentage of high availability, granted that the system is required to operate continuously. Service Level Agreements (SLAs) usually refer to monthly downtime or availability in order to calculate service levels to match monthly financial cycles. The following table from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) illustrates the correlation between a given availability percentage and the relevant amount of time a system would be unavailable per year, month, or week:

Oracle 11g R1R2 Real Applications Clusters

For monthly calculations, a 30-day month is used.
It should be noted that availability and uptimes are not the same thing. For instance, a database system may be online but not available, as in the case of application outages such as when a user’s SQL script cannot be executed.

In most cases, the number of nines is not often used by the database or system professional when measuring high availability for data center environments because it is difficult to extrapolate such hard numbers without a large test environment. For practical purposes, availability is calculated more as a probability or average downtime given per annual basis.

High availability interpretations

When it comes to discussing how availability is measured, there is a debate on the correct method of interpretation for high availability ratios. For instance, an Oracle database server that has been online for 365 days in a given non-leap year might have been eclipsed by an application failure that lasted for nine hours during a peak usage period. As a consequence, the users will see the complete system as unavailable, whereas the Oracle database administrator will claim 100% “uptime.” However, given the true definition of availability, the Oracle database will be approximately 99.897% available (8751 hours of available timeout of 8760 hours per non-leap year). Furthermore, Oracle database systems experiencing performance problems are often deemed partially or entirely unavailable by users, while in the eyes of the database administrator the system is fine and available.

Another situation that presents a challenge in terms of what constitutes availability would be the scenario in which the availability of a mission-critical application might go offline yet is not viewed as unavailable by the Oracle DBA, as the database instance could still be online and thus available. However, the application in question is offline to the end user, thus presenting a status of unavailable from the perspective of the end user. This illustrates the key point that a true availability measure must be from a holistic perspective and not strictly from the database’s point of view.

Availability should be measured with comprehensive monitoring tools that are themselves highly available and present the proper instrumentation. If there is a lack of instrumentation, systems supporting high-volume transaction processing frequently during the day and night, such as credit-card-processing database servers, are often inherently better monitored than systems that experience a periodic lull in demand. Currently, custom scripts can be developed in conjunction with third-party tools to provide a measure of availability. One such tool that we recommend for monitoring database, server, and application availability is that provided by Oracle Grid Control, which also includes Oracle Enterprise Manager.

Oracle Grid Control provides instrumentation via agents and plugin modules to measure availability and performance on a system-wide enterprise level, thereby greatly aiding the Oracle database professional to measure, track, and report to management and users on the status of availability with all mission-critical applications and system components. However, the current version of Oracle Enterprise Manager will not provide a true picture of availability until 11g Grid Control is released in the future.

Recovery time and high availability

Recovery time is closely related to the concept of high availability. Recovery time varies based on system design and failure experienced, in that a full recovery may well be impossible if the system design prevents such recovery options. For example, if the data center is not designed correctly with the required system and database backups and a standby disaster recovery site in place, then a major catastrophe such as a fire or earthquake will almost always result in complete unavailability until a complete MAA solution is implemented. In this case, only a partial recovery may be possible. This drives home the point that for all major data center operations, you should always have a backup plan with an offsite secondary disaster-recovery data center to protect against losing all critical systems and data.

In terms of database administration for Oracle data centers, the concept of data availability is essential when dealing with recovery time and planning for highly available options. Data availability references the degree to which databases such as Oracle record and report transactions. Data management professionals often focus just on data availability in order to judge what constitutes an acceptable data loss with different types of failure events. While application service interruptions are inconvenient and sometimes permitted, data loss is not to be tolerated. As one Chief Information Officer (CIO) and executive once told us while working for a large financial brokerage, you can have the system down to perform maintenance but never ever lose my data!

The next item related to high availability and recovery standards is that of Service Level Agreements or SLAs for data center operations. The purpose of the Service Level Agreement is to actualize the availability objectives and requirements for a data center environment per business requirements into a standard corporate information technology (IT) policy.

System design for high availability

Ironically, by adding further components to the overall system and database architecture design, you may actually undermine your efforts to achieve true high availability for your Oracle data center environment. The reason for this is by their very nature, complex systems inherently have more potential failure points and thus are more difficult to implement properly. The most highly available systems for Oracle adhere to a simple design pattern that makes use of a single, high quality, multipurpose physical system with comprehensive internal redundancy running all interdependent functions, paired with a second like system at a separate physical location. An example would be to have a primary Oracle RAC clustered site with a second Disaster Recovery site at another location with Oracle Data Guard and perhaps dual Oracle RAC clusters at both sites connected by stretch clusters. The best possible way to implement an active standby site with Oracle would be to have Oracle Streams and Oracle Data Guard. Large commercial banking and insurance institutions would benefit from this model for Oracle data center design to maximize system availability.

Business Continuity and high availability

Business Continuity Planning (BCP) refers to the creation and validation of a rehearsed operations plan for the IT organization that explains the procedures of how the data center and business unit will recover and restore, partially or completely, interrupted business functions within a predetermined time after a major disaster.

In its simplest terms, BCP is the foundation for the IT data center operations team to maintain critical systems in the event of disaster. Major incidents could include events such as fires, earthquakes, or national acts of terrorism.

BCP may also encompass corporate training efforts to help reduce operational risk factors associated with the lack of information technology (IT) management controls. These BCP processes may also be integrated with IT standards and practices to improve security and corporate risk management practices. An example would be to implement BCP controls as part of Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) compliance requirements for publicly traded corporations.

The origins for BCP standards arose from the British Standards Institution (BSI) in 2006 when the BSI released a new independent standard for business continuity named BS 25999-1. Prior to the introduction of this standard for BCP, IT professionals had to rely on the previous BSI information security standard, BS 7799, which provided only limited standards for business continuity compliance procedures. One of the key benefits of these new standards was to extend additional practices for business continuity to a wider variety of organizations, to cover needs for public sector, government, non-profit, and private corporations.

Disaster Recovery

Disaster Recovery (DR) is the process, policies, and procedures related to preparing for recovery or continuation of technology infrastructure critical to an organization after either a natural or human-caused disaster.

Disaster Recovery Planning (DRP) is a subset of larger processes such as Business Continuity and should include planning for resumption of applications, databases, hardware, networking, and other IT infrastructure components. A Business Continuity Plan includes planning for non-IT-related aspects, such as staff member activities, during a major disaster as well as site facility operations, and it should reference the Disaster Recovery Plan for IT-related infrastructure recovery and business continuity procedures and guidelines.

Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery guidelines

The following recommendations will provide you with a blueprint to formulate your requirements and implementation for a robust Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery plan:

  1. Identifying the scope and boundaries of your Business Continuity Plan:The first step enables you to define the scope of your new Business Continuity Plan. It provides you with an idea of the limitations and boundaries of the Business Continuity Plan. It also includes important audit and risk analysis reports for corporate assets.
  2. Conducting a Business Impact Analysis session:Business Impact Analysis (BIA) is the assessment of financial losses to institutions, which usually results as the consequence of destructive events such as the loss or unavailability of mission-critical business services.
  3. Obtaining support for your business continuity plans and goals from the executive management team:You will need to convince senior management to approve your business continuity plan, so that you can flawlessly execute your disaster recovery planning. Assign stakeholders as representatives on the project planning committee team, once approval is obtained from the corporate executive team.
  4. Understanding its specific role:In the possible event of a major disaster, each of your departments must be prepared to take immediate action. In order to successfully recover your mission-critical database systems with minimal loss, each team must understand the BCP and DRP plans, as well as follow them correctly. Furthermore, it is also important to maintain your DRP and BCP plans, as well as conduct periodic training of your IT staff members on a regular basis to have successful response time for emergencies. Such “smoke tests” to train and keep your IT staff members up to date on the correct procedures and communications will pay major dividends in the event of an unforeseen disaster.

One useful tool for creating and managing BCP plans is available from the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST). The NIST documentation can be used to generate templates that can be used as an excellent starting point for your Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery planning. We highly recommend that you download and review the following NIST publication for creating and evaluating BCP plans, Contingency Planning Guide for Information Technology Systems, which is available online at http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/nistpubs/800-34/sp800-34.pdf.

Additional NIST documents may also provide insight into how best to manage new or current BCP or DRP plans. A complete listing of NIST publications is available online at http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/PubsSPs.html.


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