If the building in which you work were completely destroyed
tomorrow, how quickly could your company’s computer systems be back online? If
you’re smart, you said that they would never go offline because a remote
facility would instantly take over operations. Until fairly recently though,
such functionality remained a pipe dream for all but the largest and wealthiest
companies.

Individual companies plan for disaster in different ways,
depending on the likelihood of a disaster, the amount of time that is acceptable
for the company’s systems to be offline, and of course, budget. Some of the
companies that I’ve worked for had some pretty unique plans for dealing with a
major catastrophe.

An insurance company I used to work for had a warehouse
located in a nearby city. They required their computer vendor to keep duplicate
machines in stock at all times. The company was contractually obligated to
deliver these duplicate machines to the warehouse within two hours if the main
office were destroyed. The idea was that by using these duplicate machines and
backup tapes that were already being sent to the warehouse each day, the
company could be back online within eight hours of when the disaster occurred.

Another company that I worked for had a huge datacenter and
an even bigger tape library. As a contingency against disaster, the company had
a duplicate data center in another state that could take over operations
immediately. The tape library was designed so that any time data was archived
to tape, a duplicate tape was also made. These duplicate tapes were flown to
the remote data center twice each day.

While both of these are relatively good disaster recovery
plans, they tend to be expensive and far from perfect. In either case, the
destruction of the main office would almost certainly lead to some data loss.
Today, losing even a few hours worth of data isn’t an option for most companies.
Imagine what would happen if you lost every e-mail that you had received in the
last four hours, or what would happen if you had no record of any of the sales
that had come in through your company’s Web site in the last four hours.

If even a few hours worth of downtime and data loss isn’t an
option for your company, then you need to take a look at technologies that will
allow your company to stay online, even if the main office were destroyed.

Enter iSCSI

One technology that is promising to make instantaneous
disaster recovery more readily available to smaller companies is iSCSI. In case
you aren’t familiar with iSCSI, it stands for Internet Small Computer System
Interface. It is basically SCSI over IP. The technology was originally designed
for storage area networks, running at speeds of up to 10 Gbps over Ethernet.
However, iSCSI is capable of running on any IP-based network, including the Internet.

iSCSI is an ideal technology for keeping your network online
during a major disaster. For example, if your corporate headquarters is located
in Miami, you could theoretically mirror all of your data to a server in
Charlotte, NC in real time. The only major technical hurdle that you would have
to cross is getting a connection with enough bandwidth.

Of course, the simple act of mirroring data to another
facility alone won’t keep the company online during a disaster. All the mirroring
process does is guarantee that there is a complete and current copy of all of
the company’s data at another facility. The real trick to staying online is to
configure the servers in the alternate facility to take over for the servers
that have been destroyed.

There are a couple of different ways that you could pull
this off. The simplest method would be to have duplicate servers at the
alternate facility on standby. When disaster strikes, you could power the
servers up, connect them to the mirrored data, and then change any necessary
DNS entries to get traffic to start flowing to the alternate facility rather
than to the primary facility.

Another technique that you could use is long distance
clustering. In a long distance cluster configuration, one server acts as a
primary node and another server acts as a secondary node. A data link between
the two servers communicates the primary server’s health to the secondary
server. If the primary server should drop offline and fail to respond within a
predetermined amount of time, then the secondary server will take over for the
primary server automatically. Because the two nodes act as a single server,
there is no need to manually redirect traffic to the secondary server.

If iSCSI clusters are something that you believe your
company could benefit from, then you will be happy to know that iSCSI works
well with both Windows 2000 Server clusters and with Windows Server 2003
clusters. However, according to an article
on TechNet
, Microsoft plans to support iSCSI only in conjunction
with Windows Server 2003 clusters.

If a company is considering implementing iSCSI clustering,
then the biggest hurdle to overcome will likely be bandwidth. While iSCSI gets
the job done on a reasonable budget, it can be very bandwidth intensive.
Therefore, when planning an iSCSI cluster, you might want to budget for a high
bandwidth leased line. The actual amount of bandwidth that you need varies
widely from company to company, depending on the amount of data that’s being
transmitted.