Disaster planning is a subject that is easy for a system administrator
to forget — it is not pleasant, and it always seems that there is
something else more pressing to do. However, letting disaster planning
slide is one of the worst things a system administrator can do.
Although it is often the dramatic disasters (such as a fire, flood, or
storm) that first come to mind, the more mundane problems (such as
construction workers cutting cables or even an overflowing sink) can be
just as disruptive. Therefore, the definition of a disaster that a system
administrator should keep in mind is any unplanned event that disrupts the
normal operation of the organization.
While it would be impossible to list all the different types of
disasters that could strike, this section examines the leading factors
that are part of each type of disaster so that any possible exposure can
be examined not in terms of its likelihood, but in terms of the factors
that could lead to disaster.
Hardware failures are easy to understand — the hardware
fails, and work grinds to a halt. What is more difficult to
understand is the nature of the failures and how your exposure to them
can be minimized. Here are some approaches that you can use:
Depending on your past experience and the hardware involved,
having the necessary skills might be a non-issue. However, if you
have not worked with hardware before, you might consider looking
into local community colleges for introductory courses on PC
repair. While such a course is not in and of itself sufficient to
prepare you for tackling problems with an enterprise-level server,
it is a good way to learn the basics (proper handling of tools and
components, basic diagnostic procedures, and so on).
Before taking the approach of first fixing it yourself, make
sure that the hardware in question:
Is not still under warranty
Is not under a service/maintenance contract of any
If you attempt repairs on hardware that is covered by a
warranty and/or service contract, you are likely violating the
terms of these agreements and jeopardizing your continued
However, even with minimal skills, it might be possible to
effectively diagnose and replace failing hardware — if you
choose your stock of replacement hardware properly.
This question illustrates the multi-faceted nature of anything
related to disaster recovery. When considering what hardware to
stock, here are some of the issues you should keep in mind:
Maximum allowable downtime
The skill required to make the repair
Budget available for spares
Storage space required for spares
Other hardware that could utilize the same spares
Each of these issues has a bearing on the types of spares that
should be stocked. For example, stocking complete systems would
tend to minimize downtime and require minimal skills to install
but would be much more expensive than having a spare CPU and RAM
module on a shelf. However, this expense might be worthwhile if
your organization has several dozen identical servers that could
benefit from a single spare system.
No matter what the final decision, the following question is
inevitable and is discussed next.
The question of spare stock levels is also multi-faceted.
Here the main issues are:
Maximum allowable downtime
Projected rate of failure
Estimated time to replenish stock
Budget available for spares
Storage space required for spares
Other hardware that could utilize the same
At one extreme, for a system that can afford to be down a
maximum of two days, and a spare that might be used once a year
and could be replenished in a day, it would make sense to carry
only one spare (and maybe even none, if you were confident of
your ability to secure a spare within 24 hours).
At the other end of the spectrum, a system that can afford
to be down no more than a few minutes, and a spare that might be
used once a month (and could take several weeks to replenish)
might mean that a half dozen spares (or more) should be on the
When is a spare not a spare? When it is hardware that is in
day-to-day use but is also available to serve as a spare for a
higher-priority system should the need arise. This approach has
Less money dedicated to "non-productive" spares
The hardware is known to be operative
There are, however, downsides to this approach:
Normal production of the lower-priority task is
There is an exposure should the lower-priority hardware
fail (leaving no spare for the higher-priority
Given these constraints, the use of another production system
as a spare may work, but the success of this approach hinges on
the system's specific workload and the impact the system's absence
has on overall data center operations.
Service contracts make the issue of hardware failures someone
else's problem. All that is necessary for you to do is to confirm
that a failure has, in fact, occurred and that it does not appear to
have a software-related cause. You then make a telephone call, and
someone shows up to make things right again.
It seems so simple. But as with most things in life, there is
more to it than meets the eye. Here are some things that you must
consider when looking at a service contract:
Hours of coverage
Hardware to be covered
We explore each of these details more closely in the following
Different service contracts are available to meet different
needs; one of the big variables between different contracts
relates to the hours of coverage. Unless you are willing to pay a
premium for the privilege, you cannot just call any time and
expect to see a technician at your door a short time later.
Instead, depending on your contract, you might find that you
cannot even phone the service company until a specific day/time,
or if you can, they will not dispatch a technician until the
day/time specified for your contract.
Most hours of coverage are defined in terms of the hours and
the days during which a technician may be dispatched. Some of the
more common hours of coverage are:
Monday through Friday, 09:00 to 17:00
Monday through Friday, 12/18/24 hours each day (with the
start and stop times mutually agreed upon)
Monday through Saturday (or Monday through Sunday), same
times as above
As you might expect, the cost of a contract increases with the
hours of coverage. In general, extending the coverage Monday
through Friday tends to cost less than adding on Saturday and
But even here there is a possibility of reducing costs if you
are willing to do some of the work.
If your situation does not require anything more than the
availability of a technician during standard business hours and
you have sufficient experience to be able to determine what is
broken, you might consider looking at depot
service. Known by many names (including
walk-in service and drop-off
service), manufacturers may have service depots
where technicians work on hardware brought in by
Depot service has the benefit of being as fast as you are.
You do not have to wait for a technician to become available and
show up at your facility. Depot technicians do not go out on
customer calls, meaning that there will be someone to work on
your hardware as soon as you can get it to the depot.
Because depot service is done at a central location, there
is a good chance that any required parts will be available.
This can eliminate the need for an overnight shipment or waiting
for a part to be driven several hundred miles from another
office that just happened to have that part in stock.
There are some trade-offs, however. The most obvious is
that you cannot choose the hours of service — you get
service when the depot is open. Another aspect to this is that
the technicians do not work past their quitting time, so if your
system failed at 16:30 on a Friday and you got the system to the
depot by 17:00, it will not be worked on until the technicians
arrive at work the following Monday morning.
Another trade-off is that depot service depends on having a
depot nearby. If your organization is located in a metropolitan
area, this is likely not going to be a problem. However,
organizations in more rural locations may find that a depot is a
long drive away.
If considering depot service, take a moment and consider
the mechanics of actually getting the hardware to the depot.
Will you be using a company vehicle or your own? If your own,
does your vehicle have the necessary space and load capacity?
What about insurance? Will more than one person be necessary
to load and unload the hardware?
Although these are rather mundane concerns, they should be
addressed before making the decision to use depot
In addition to the hours of coverage, many service agreements
specify a level of response time. In other words, when you call
requesting service, how long will it be before a technician
arrives? As you might imagine, a faster response time equates to
a more expensive service agreement.
There are limits to the response times that are available.
For instance, the travel time from the manufacturer's office to
your facility has a large bearing on the response times that are
possible. Response times in the four
hour range are usually considered among the quicker offerings.
Slower response times can range from eight hours (which
effectively becomes "next day" service for a standard business
hours agreement), to 24 hours. As with every other aspect of a
service agreement, even these times are negotiable — for the
Although it is not a common occurrence, you should be aware
that service agreements with response time clauses can sometimes
stretch a manufacturer's service organization beyond its ability
to respond. It is not unheard of for a very busy service
organization to send somebody —
anybody — on a short response-time
service call just to meet their response time commitment. This
person apparently diagnoses the problem, calling "the office" to
have someone bring "the right part."
In fact, they are just waiting until someone who is actually
capable of handling the call arrives.
While it might be understandable to see this happen under
extraordinary circumstances (such as power problems that have
damaged systems throughout their service area), if this is a
consistent method of operation you should contact the service
manager and demand an explanation.
If your response time needs are stringent (and your budget
correspondingly large), there is one approach that can cut your
response times even further — to zero.
Given the appropriate situation (you are one of the biggest
customers in the area), sufficient need (downtime of
any magnitude is unacceptable), and
financial resources (if you have to ask for the price, you
probably cannot afford it), you might be a candidate for a
full-time, on-site technician. The benefits of having a
technician always standing by are obvious:
Instant response to any problem
A more proactive approach to system maintenance
As you might expect, this option can be
very expensive, particularly if you require
an on-site technician 24x7. But if this approach is appropriate
for your organization, you should keep a number of points in
mind in order to gain the most benefit.
First, on-site technicians need many of the resources of a
regular employee, such as a workspace, telephone, appropriate
access cards and/or keys, and so on.
On-site technicians are not very helpful if they do not have
the proper parts. Therefore, make sure that secure storage is
set aside for the technician's spare parts. In addition, make
sure that the technician keeps a stock of parts appropriate for
your configuration and that those parts are not routinely
"cannibalized" by other technicians for their customers.
Obviously, the availability of parts plays a large role in
limiting your organization's exposure to hardware failures. In
the context of a service agreement, the availability of parts
takes on another dimension, as the availability of parts applies
not only to your organization, but to any other customer in the
manufacturer's territory that might need those parts as well.
Another organization that has purchased more of the manufacturer's
hardware than you might get preferential treatment when it comes
to getting parts (and technicians, for that matter).
Unfortunately, there is little that can be done in such
circumstances, short of working out the problem with the service
As outlined above, service contracts vary in price according
to the nature of the services being provided. Keep in mind that
the costs associated with a service contract are a recurring
expense; each time the contract is due to expire you must
negotiate a new contract and pay again.
Here is an area where you might be able to help keep costs to
a minimum. Consider for a moment that you have negotiated a
service agreement that has an on-site technician 24x7, on-site
spares — you name it. Every single piece of hardware you
have purchased from this vendor is covered, including the PC that
the company receptionist uses for non-critical tasks.
Does that PC really need to have someone
on-site 24x7? Even if the PC is vital to the receptionist's job,
the receptionist only works from 09:00 to 17:00; it is highly
The PC will be in use from 17:00 to 09:00 the next morning
(not to mention weekends)
A failure of this PC will be noticed, except between 09:00
Therefore, paying on the chance that this PC might need to be
serviced in the middle of a Saturday night is a waste of
The thing to do is to split up the service agreement such that
non-critical hardware is grouped separately from more critical
hardware. In this way, costs can be kept as low as
If you have twenty identically-configured servers that are
critical to your organization, you might be tempted to have a
high-level service agreement written for only one or two, with
the rest covered by a much less expensive agreement. Then, the
reasoning goes, no matter which one of the servers fails on a
weekend, you will say that it is the one
eligible for high-level service.
Do not do this. Not only is it
dishonest, most manufacturers keep track of such things by using
serial numbers. Even if you figure out a way around such
checks, far more is spent after being discovered than by being
honest and paying for the service you really need.
Software failures can result in extended downtimes. For example,
owners of a certain brand of computer systems noted for their
high-availability features recently experienced this firsthand. A bug
in the time handling code of the computer's operating system resulted
in each customer's systems crashing at a certain time of a certain
day. While this particular situation is a more spectacular example of
a software failure in action, other software-related failures may be
less dramatic, but still as devastating.
Software failures can strike in one of two areas:
Each type of failure has its own specific impact and is explored
in more detail in the following sections.
In this type of failure, the operating system is responsible for
the disruption in service. Operating system failures come from two
The main thing to keep in mind about operating system failures
is that they take out everything that the computer was running at
the time of the failure. As such, operating system failures can be
devastating to production.
Crashes occur when the operating system experiences an error
condition from which it cannot recover. The reasons for crashes
can range from an inability to handle an underlying hardware
problem to a bug in the kernel-level code comprising the operating
system. When an operating system crashes, the system must be
rebooted in order to continue production.
When the operating system stops handling system events, the
system grinds to a halt. This is known as a
hang. Hangs can be caused by
deadlocks (two resource consumers
contending for resources the other has) and
livelocks (two or more processes responding
to each other's activities, but doing no useful work), but the end
result is the same — a complete lack of productivity.
Unlike operating system failures, application failures can be
more limited in the scope of their damage. Depending on the
specific application, a single application failing might impact only
one person. On the other hand, if it is a server application
servicing a large population of client applications, the
consequences of a failure would be much more widespread.
Application failures, like operating system failures, can be due
to hangs and crashes; the only difference is that here it is the
application that is hanging or crashing.
Just as hardware vendors provide support for their products,
many software vendors make support packages available to their
customers. Except for the obvious differences (no spare hardware is
required, and most of the work can be done by support personnel over
the phone), software support contracts can be quite similar to
hardware support contracts.
The level of support provided by a software vendor can vary.
Here are some of the more common support strategies employed
Web or email support
Each type of support is described in more detail in the
Self support relies on the customer using online resources to
resolve their own software-related issues. Quite often these
resources take the form of Web-based FAQs (Frequently Asked
Questions) or knowledge bases.
FAQs often have little or no selection capabilities, leaving
the customer to scroll through question after question in the
hopes of finding one that addresses the issue at hand. Knowledge
bases tend to be somewhat more sophisticated, allowing the entry
of search terms. Knowledge bases can also be quite extensive in
scope, making it a good tool for resolving problems.
Many times what looks like a self support website also
includes Web-based forms or email addresses that make it possible
to send questions to support staff. While this might at first
glance appear to be an improvement over a good self support
website, it really depends on the people answering the
If the support staff is overworked, it is difficult to get the
necessary information from them, as their main concern is to
quickly respond to each email and move on to the next one. The
reason for this is because nearly all support personnel are
evaluated by the number of issues that they resolve. Escalation
of issues is also difficult because there is little that can be
done within an email to encourage more timely and helpful
responses — particularly when the person reading your email
is in a hurry to move on to the next one.
The way to get the best service is to make sure that your
email addresses all the questions that a support technician might
ask, such as:
Clearly describe the nature of the problem
Include all pertinent version numbers
Describe what you have already done in an attempt to
address the problem (applied the latest patches, rebooted with
a minimal configuration, etc.)
By giving the support technician more information, you stand a
better chance of getting the support you need.
As the name implies, telephone support entails speaking to a
support technician via telephone. This style of support is most
similar to hardware support; that there can be various levels of
support available (with different hours of coverage, response
Also known as on-site consulting, on-site software support is
normally reserved for resolving specific issues or making critical
changes, such as initial software installation and configuration,
major upgrades, and so on. As expected, this is the most
expensive type of software support available.
Still, there are instances where on-site support makes sense.
As an example, consider a small organization with a single system
administrator. The organization is going to be deploying its
first database server, but the deployment (and the organization)
is not large enough to justify hiring a dedicated database
administrator. In this situation, it can often be cheaper to
bring in a specialist from the database vendor to handle the
initial deployment (and occasionally later on, as the need arises)
than it would be to train the system administrator in a skill that
will be seldom used.
Even though the hardware may be running perfectly, and even though
the software may be configured properly and is working as it should,
problems can still occur. The most common problems that occur outside
of the system itself have to do with the physical environment in which
the system resides.
Environmental issues can be broken into four major
For such a seemingly simple structure, a building performs a
great many functions. It provides shelter from the elements. It
provides the proper micro-climate for the building's contents. It
has mechanisms to provide power and to protect against fire, theft,
and vandalism. Performing all these functions, it is not surprising
that there is a great deal that can go wrong with a building. Here
are some possibilities to consider:
Roofs can leak, allowing water into data centers.
Various building systems (such as water, sewer, or air
handling) can fail, rendering the building uninhabitable.
Floors may have insufficient load-bearing capacity to hold
the equipment you want to put in the data center.
It is important to have a creative mind when it comes to
thinking about the different ways buildings can fail. The list
above is only meant to start you thinking along the proper
Because electricity is the lifeblood of any computer system,
power-related issues are paramount in the mind of system
administrators everywhere. There are several different aspects to
power; they are covered in more detail in the following
First, it is necessary to determine how secure your normal
power supply may be. Just like nearly every other data center,
you probably obtain your power from a local power company via
power transmission lines. Because of this, there are limits to
what you can do to make sure that your primary power supply is as
secure as possible.
Organizations located near the boundaries of a power company
might be able to negotiate connections to two different power
The one servicing your area
The one from the neighboring power company
The costs involved in running power lines from the
neighboring grid are sizable, making this an option only for
larger organizations. However, such organizations find that the
redundancy gained outweigh the costs in many cases.
The main things to check are the methods by which the power is
brought onto your organization's property and into the building.
Are the transmission lines above ground or below? Above-ground
lines are susceptible to:
Damage from extreme weather conditions (ice, wind,
Traffic accidents that damage the poles and/or
Animals straying into the wrong place and shorting out the
However, below-ground lines have their own unique
Damage from construction workers digging in the wrong
Lightning (though much less so than above-ground
Continue to trace the power lines into your building. Do they
first go to an outside transformer? Is that transformer protected
from vehicles backing into it or trees falling on it? Are all
exposed shutoff switches protected against unauthorized
Once inside your building, could the power lines (or the
panels to which they attach) be subject to other problems? For
instance, could a plumbing problem flood the electrical
Continue tracing the power into the data center; is there
anything else that could unexpectedly interrupt your power supply?
For example, is the data center sharing one or more circuits with
non-data center loads? If so, the external load might one day
trip the circuit's overload protection, taking down the data
center as well.
It is not enough to ensure that the data center's power source
is as secure as possible. You must also be concerned with the
quality of the power being distributed throughout the data center.
There are several factors that must be considered:
The voltage of the incoming power must be stable, with
no voltage reductions (often called
or brownouts) or voltage increases
(often known as spikes and
The waveform must be a clean sine wave, with minimal
THD (Total Harmonic
The frequency must be stable (most countries use a power
frequency of either 50Hz or 60Hz).
The power must not include any
RFI (Radio Frequency Interference) or
EMI (Electro-Magnetic Interference)
The power must be supplied at a current rating
sufficient to run the data center.
Power supplied directly from the power company does not
normally meet the standards necessary for a data center.
Therefore, some level of power conditioning is usually required.
There are several different approaches possible:
Surge protectors do just what their name implies —
they filter surges from the power supply. Most do nothing
else, leaving equipment vulnerable to damage from other
Power conditioners attempt a more comprehensive
approach; depending on the sophistication of the unit, power
conditioners often can take care of most of the types of
problems outlined above.
A motor-generator set is essentially a large electric
motor powered by your normal power supply. The motor is
attached to a large flywheel, which is, in turn, attached to
a generator. The motor turns the flywheel and generator,
which generates electricity in sufficient quantities to run
the data center. In this way, the data center power is
electrically isolated from outside power, meaning that most
power-related problems are eliminated. The flywheel also
provides the ability to maintain power through short
outages, as it takes several seconds for the flywheel to
slow to the point at which it can no longer generate
Uninterruptible Power Supplies
Some types of Uninterruptible Power Supplies (more
commonly known as a UPS) include most
(if not all) of the protection features of a power
With the last two technologies listed above, we have started
in on the topic most people think of when they think about power
— backup power. In the next section, different approaches
to providing backup power are explored.
One power-related term that nearly everyone has heard is the
term blackout. A blackout is a complete
loss of electrical power and may last from a fraction of a second
Because the length of blackouts can vary so greatly, it is
necessary to approach the task of providing backup power using
different technologies for power outages of different
The most frequent blackouts last, on average, no more than a
few seconds; longer outages are much less frequent. Therefore,
concentrate first on protecting against blackouts of only a few
minutes in duration, then work out methods of reducing your
exposure to longer outages.
Since the majority of outages last only a few seconds, your
backup power solution must have two primary
Very short time to switch to backup power (known as
A runtime (the time that backup
power will last) measured in seconds to minutes
The backup power solutions that match these characteristics
are motor-generator sets and UPSs. The flywheel in the
motor-generator set allows the generator to continue producing
electricity for enough time to ride out outages of a second or
so. Motor-generator sets tend to be quite large and expensive,
making them a practical solution only for mid-sized and larger
However, another technology — called a UPS — can
fill in for those situations where a motor-generator set is too
expensive. It can also handle longer outages.
UPSs can be purchased in a variety of sizes — small
enough to run a single low-end PC for five minutes or large
enough to power an entire data center for an hour or
UPSs are made up of the following parts:
A transfer switch for switching
from the primary power supply to the backup power supply
A battery, for providing backup power
An inverter, which converts the
DC current from the battery into the AC current required by
the data center hardware
Apart from the size and battery capacity of the unit, UPSs
come in two basic types:
The offline UPS uses its
inverter to generate power only when the primary power
The online UPS uses its inverter
to generate power all the time, powering the inverter via
its battery only when the primary power supply fails.
Each type has their advantages and disadvantages. The
offline UPS is usually less expensive, because the inverter
does not have to be constructed for full-time operation.
However, a problem in the inverter of an offline UPS will go
unnoticed (until the next power outage, that is).
Online UPSs tend to be better at providing clean power to
your data center; after all, an online UPS is essentially
generating power for you full time.
But no matter what type of UPS you choose, you must properly
size the UPS to your anticipated load (thereby ensuring that the
UPS has sufficient capacity to produce electricity at the
required voltage and current), and you must
determine how long you would like to be able to run your data
center on battery power.
To determine this information, you must first identify those
loads that are to be serviced by the UPS. Go to each piece of
equipment and determine how much power it draws (this is
normally listed on a label near the unit's power cord). Write
down the voltage, watts, and/or amps. Once you have these
figures for all of the hardware, you must convert them to
VA (Volt-Amps). If you have a wattage
number, you can use the listed wattage as the VA; if you have
amps, multiply it by volts to get VA. By adding the VA figures
you can arrive at the approximate VA rating required for the
Strictly speaking, this approach to calculating VA is not
entirely correct; however, to get the true VA you would need
to know the power factor for each unit, and this information
is rarely, if ever, provided. In any case, the VA numbers
obtained from this approach reflects worst-case values,
leaving a large margin of error for safety.
Determining runtime is more of a business question than a
technical question — what sorts of outages are you willing
to protect against, and how much money are you prepared to spend
to do so? Most sites select runtimes that are less than an hour
or two at most, as battery-backed power becomes very expensive
beyond this point.
Once we get into power outages that are measured in days,
the choices get even more expensive. The technologies capable
of handling long-term power outages are limited to generators
powered by some type of engine — diesel and gas turbine,
Keep in mind that engine-powered generators require
regular refueling while they are running. You should know
your generator's fuel "burn" rate at maximum load and arrange
fuel deliveries accordingly.
At this point, your options are wide open, assuming your
organization has sufficient funds. This is also an area where
experts should help you determine the best solution for your
organization. Very few system administrators have the
specialized knowledge necessary to plan the acquisition and
deployment of these kinds of power generation systems.
Portable generators of all sizes can be rented, making it
possible to have the benefits of generator power without the
initial outlay of money necessary to purchase one. However,
keep in mind that in disasters affecting your general
vicinity, rented generators will be in very short supply and
While a black out of five minutes is little more than an
inconvenience to the personnel in a darkened office, what about an
outage that lasts an hour? Five hours? A day? A week?
The fact is, even if the data center is operating normally, an
extended outage will eventually affect your organization at some
point. Consider the following points:
What if there is no power to maintain environmental
control in the data center?
What if there is no power to maintain environmental
control in the entire building?
What if there is no power to operate personal
workstations, the telephone system, the lights?
The point here is that your organization must determine at
what point an extended outage will just have to be tolerated. Or
if that is not an option, your organization must reconsider its
ability to function completely independently of on-site power for
extended periods, meaning that very large generators will be
needed to power the entire building.
Of course, even this level of planning cannot take place in a
vacuum. It is very likely that whatever caused the extended
outage is also affecting the world outside your organization, and
that the outside world will start having an affect on your
organization's ability to continue operations, even given
unlimited power generation capacity.
The Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning
(HVAC) systems used in today's office
buildings are incredibly sophisticated. Often computer controlled,
the HVAC system is vital to providing a comfortable work
Data centers usually have additional air handling equipment,
primarily to remove the heat generated by the many computers and
associated equipment. Failures in an HVAC system can be devastating
to the continued operation of a data center. And given their
complexity and electro-mechanical nature, the possibilities for
failure are many and varied. Here are a few examples:
The air handling units (essentially large fans driven by
large electric motors) can fail due to electrical overload,
bearing failure, belt/pulley failure, etc.
The cooling units (often called
chillers) can lose their refrigerant due
to leaks, or they can have their compressors and/or motors
HVAC repair and maintenance is a very specialized field —
a field that the average system administrator should leave to the
experts. If anything, a system administrator should make sure that
the HVAC equipment serving the data center is checked for normal
operation on a daily basis (if not more frequently) and is
maintained according to the manufacturer's guidelines.
There are some types of weather that can cause problems for a
Heavy snow and ice can prevent personnel from getting to the
data center, and can even clog air conditioning condensers,
resulting in elevated data center temperatures just when no one
is able to get to the data center to take corrective
High winds can disrupt power and communications, with
extremely high winds actually doing damage to the building
There are other types of weather than can still cause problems,
even if they are not as well known. For example, exceedingly high
temperatures can result in overburdened cooling systems, and
brownouts or blackouts as the local power grid becomes
Although there is little that can be done about the weather,
knowing the way that it can affect your data center operations can
help you to keep things running even when the weather turns
It has been said that computers really are
perfect. The reasoning behind this statement is that if you dig
deeply enough, behind every computer error you will find the human
error that caused it. In this section, the more common types of human
errors and their impacts are explored.
The users of a computer can make mistakes that can have serious
impact. However, due to their normally unprivileged operating
environment, user errors tend to be localized in nature. Because
most users interact with a computer exclusively through one or more
applications, it is within applications that most end-user errors
When applications are used improperly, various problems can
Files inadvertently overwritten
Wrong data used as input to an application
Files not clearly named and organized
Files accidentally deleted
The list could go on, but this is enough to illustrate the
point. Due to users not having super-user privileges, the
mistakes they make are usually limited to their own files. As
such, the best approach is two-pronged:
Educate users in the proper use of their applications and
in proper file management techniques
Make sure backups of users' files are made regularly and
that the restoration process is as streamlined and quick as
Beyond this, there is little that can be done to keep user
errors to a minimum.
Operators have a more in-depth relationship with an
organization's computers than end-users. Where end-user errors tend
to be application-oriented, operators tend to perform a wider range
of tasks. Although the nature of the tasks have been dictated by
others, some of these tasks can include the use of system-level
utilities, where the potential for widespread damage due to errors
is greater. Therefore, the types of errors that an operator might
make center on the operator's ability to follow the procedures that
have been developed for the operator's use.
Operators should have sets of procedures documented and
available for nearly every action they perform. It might be that an operator does
not follow the procedures as they are laid out. There can be
several reasons for this:
The environment was changed at some time in the past, and
the procedures were never updated. Now the environment
changes again, rendering the operator's memorized procedure
invalid. At this point, even if the procedures were updated
(which is unlikely, given the fact that they were not updated
before) the operator will not be aware of it.
The environment was changed, and no procedures exist.
This is just a more out-of-control version of the previous
The procedures exist and are correct, but the operator
will not (or cannot) follow them.
Depending on the management structure of your organization,
you might not be able to do much more than communicate your
concerns to the appropriate manager. In any case, making yourself
available to do what you can to help resolve the problem is the
Even if the operator follows the procedures, and even if the
procedures are correct, it is still possible for mistakes to be
made. If this happens, the possibility exists that the operator
is careless (in which case the operator's management should become
Another explanation is that it was just a mistake. In these
cases, the best operators realize that something is wrong and seek
assistance. Always encourage the operators you work with to
contact the appropriate people immediately if they suspect
something is wrong. Although many operators are highly-skilled
and able to resolve many problems independently, the fact of the
matter is that this is not their job. And a problem that is made
worse by a well-meaning operator harms both that person's career
and your ability to quickly resolve what might originally have
been a small problem.
Unlike operators, system administrators perform a wide variety
of tasks using an organization's computers. Also unlike operators,
the tasks that system administrators perform are often not based on
Therefore, system administrators sometimes make unnecessary work
for themselves when they are not careful about what they are doing.
During the course of carrying out day-to-day responsibilities,
system administrators have more than sufficient access to the
computer systems (not to mention their super-user access privileges)
to mistakenly bring systems down.
System administrators either make errors of misconfiguration or
errors during maintenance.
System administrators must often configure various aspects of
a computer system. This configuration might include:
The list could go on quite a bit longer. The actual task of
configuration varies greatly; some tasks require editing a text
file (using any one of a hundred different configuration file
syntaxes), while other tasks require running a configuration
The fact that these tasks are all handled differently is
merely an additional challenge to the basic fact that each
configuration task itself requires different knowledge. For
example, the knowledge required to configure a mail transport
agent is fundamentally different from the knowledge required to
configure a new network connection.
Given all this, perhaps it should be surprising that so
few mistakes are actually made. In any case,
configuration is, and will continue to be, a challenge for system
administrators. Is there anything that can be done to make the
process less error-prone?
The common thread of every configuration change is that some
sort of a change is being made. The change may be large, or it
may be small. But it is still a change and should be treated in
a particular way.
Many organizations implement some type of change control
process. The intent is to help system administrators (and all
parties affected by the change) to manage the process of change
and to reduce the organization's exposure to any errors that may
A change control process normally breaks the change into
different steps. Here is an example:
Preliminary research attempts to clearly
The nature of the change to take place
Its impact, should the change succeed
A fallback position, should the change fail
An assessment of what types of failures are
Preliminary research might include testing the
proposed change during a scheduled downtime, or it may go
so far as to include implementing the change first on a
special test environment run on dedicated test
The change is examined with an eye toward the actual
mechanics of implementation. The scheduling being done
includes outlining the sequencing and timing of the change
(along with the sequencing and timing of any steps
necessary to back the change out should a problem arise),
as well as ensuring that the time allotted for the change
is sufficient and does not conflict with any other
The product of this process is often a checklist of
steps for the system administrator to use while making the
change. Included with each step are instructions to
perform in order to back out the change should the step
fail. Estimated times are often included, making it
easier for the system administrator to determine whether
the work is on schedule or not.
At this point, the actual execution of the steps
necessary to implement the change should be
straightforward and anti-climactic. The change is either
implemented, or (if trouble crops up) it is backed
Whether the change is implemented or not, the
environment is monitored to make sure that everything is
operating as it should.
If the change has been implemented, all existing
documentation is updated to reflect the changed
Obviously, not all configuration changes require this level
of detail. Creating a new user account should not require any
preliminary research, and scheduling would likely consist of
determining whether the system administrator has a spare moment
to create the account. Execution would be similarly quick;
monitoring might consist of ensuring that the account was
usable, and documenting would probably entail sending an email
to the new user's manager.
But as configuration changes become more complex, a more
formal change control process becomes necessary.
This type of error can be insidious because there is usually
so little planning and tracking done during day-to-day
System administrators see the results of this kind of error
every day, especially from the many users that swear they did not
change a thing — the computer just broke. The user that
says this usually does not remember what they did, and when the
same thing happens to you, you may not remember what you did,
The key thing to keep in mind is that you must be able to
remember what changes you made during maintenance if you are to be
able to resolve any problems quickly. A full-blown change control
process is not realistic for the hundreds of small things done
over the course of a day. What can be done to keep track of the
101 small things a system administrator does every day?
The answer is simple — takes notes. Whether it is done
in a paper notebook, a PDA, or as comments in the affected files,
take notes. By tracking what you have done, you stand a better
chance of seeing a failure as being related to a change you
Sometimes the very people that are supposed to help you keep
your systems running reliably can actually make things worse. This
is not due to any conspiracy; it is just that anyone working on any
technology for any reason risks rendering that technology
inoperable. The same effect is at work when programmers fix one
bug but end up creating another.
In this case, the technician either failed to correctly
diagnose the problem and made an unnecessary (and useless) repair,
or the diagnosis was correct, but the repair was not carried out
properly. It may be that the replacement part was itself
defective, or that the proper procedure was not followed when the
repair was carried out.
This is why it is important to be aware of what the technician
is doing at all times. By doing this, you can keep an eye out for
failures that seem to be related to the original problem in some
way. This keeps the technician on track should there be a
problem; otherwise there is a chance that the technician will view
this fault as being new and unrelated to the one that was
supposedly fixed. In this way, time is not wasted chasing the
Sometimes, even though a problem was diagnosed and repaired
successfully, another problem pops up to take its place. The CPU
module was replaced, but the anti-static bag it came in was left
in the cabinet, blocking the fan and causing an over-temperature
shutdown. Or the failing disk drive in the RAID array was
replaced, but because a connector on another drive was bumped and
accidentally disconnected, the array is still down.
These things might be the result of chronic carelessness or an
honest mistake. It does not matter. What you should always do is
to carefully review the repairs made by the technician and ensure
that the system is working properly before letting the technician
And this would likely be considered a
best-case response time, as technicians usually are responsible
for territories that extend away from their office in all
directions. If you are at one end of their territory and the only
available technician is at the other end, the response time will
be even longer.
the operators at your organization do not have a set of operating
procedures, work with them, your management, and your users to get
them created. Without them, a data center is out of control and
likely to experience severe problems in the course of day-to-day