The adjective "disruptive" applied to the year 2021 is an apt descriptor of the tumultuous change we have all experienced due to the many transformations wrought by the pandemic. Digital transformation has delivered a two-edged sword of salvation and chaotic complexity. We have also seen Internet disruptions and outages become more frequent, a worrying trend with an increasingly remote workforce heavily reliant upon distributed cloud-based apps.
Our growing dependence on the cloud and Internet for business means we must take time to prepare for downtime and latency issues. There are valuable lessons found in most failures, and the Internet outages of 2021 certainly provide ample motivation to revamp processes for mitigating system disruptions. Here are six take-aways from 2021's Internet fails that can be used to increase efficiencies in managing the system infrastructure of any enterprise, no matter its size or sector.
1. Even a small change can lead to a major fail
Even the most technically sophisticated business can experience a serious system glitch. Almost all outages are the result of a manual or automated change to code or configuration.
Developing a rigorous change management approach and putting solid protocols in place will help to manage change and its possible consequences. It's important to establish clear policies and procedures around every change, with rollback steps in place for quick restoration when needed.
Your approach should involve tracking every change, testing every change before deployment, and monitoring all services, transactions and outputs that may be impacted if things do go wrong.
2. Monitor beyond your own areas of control
IT typically monitors those areas in which they are most active, like VMs, hardware and code. But they must look beyond an assumption that code bugs or infrastructure load issues are the primary causes of failure. It is equally crucial to observe what is actually delivered to consumers or users.
For an end-to-end view, IT needs visibility into areas outside of their control, such as third-party CDNs, managed DNS, and backbone ISPs. This will allow IT teams to act quickly in the event of a failure, whether that's dropping a third-party, switching to a backup solution, and of course, clearly communicating with users while teams work to resolve the situation.
3. Know the foundations of your network
Many of us live by the old adage, "If it a ain't broke, don't fix it." In the context of system infrastructure, this is often applied as, "If it ain't fixed, it won't break." If there have been no changes or modifications, we often make the mistake of assuming everything is stable.
Unfortunately, this mindset may lead you to miss those single points of failure in your system infrastructure that are rarely changed, such as DNS, BGP, and TCP configurations. All system components need continuous monitoring. Equally, teams must be prepared with a solid plan of action and having regularly practiced their response.
4. I trust you, but let's double check
When another team or vendor is making a change, it is easy to simply trust they have initiated the proper planning and analysis to make sure it's a success, but it's essential you take your own measures to verify this since the outcomes are so crucial.
Using a "Trust and Verify" approach ensures that all the checks and balances are in place when determining the impact of a change. It is essential to have a crisis call plan in place that outlines who is on call, what to do, and who to notify about the specific issue.
Other essentials are a mitigation plan for the failure, which has been pre-tested, and a communication process with templates that include need-to-know info for users and customers. Moreover, developing a monitoring and observability plan is crucial for covering all aspects of system analysis and awareness.
5. An experience monitoring and observability platform solution is your fail-safe
Deploying a holistic monitoring and observability solution platform, that enables deep visibility into all internal system components and the entire delivery chain, should be an enterprise essential. This ensures independent monitoring of every potential point of failure, which ensures you can detect outages and issues from anywhere in real time.
By establishing a baseline for how things look before a change is made, you can understand the impact of the change in regards to areas such as latency, dropped connections, slower DNS servers, and so on. As opposed to simply looking at code tracings and logs, there should be continual testing and evaluation of the output of IT services from the perspective of the end user. Monitoring must be conducted both inside the product environment and outside for 360 degree visibility into the experience.
It is also important not to rely on a cloud-only monitoring and observability solution, which can leave dangerous blind spots across the service delivery chain, and inaccurately report the end user experience.
DNS observability is essential, for instance, since a DNS problem can cause havoc and lengthy outages, like the one experienced on October 1, 2021 at Slack, one of the world's largest collaboration and messaging apps where the core problem was due to a DNS misconfiguration. Users in need of Slack's services were unable to access the app, nor or did they know why since the Slack status page was also down. The outage lasted over 15 hours, as the teams at Slack tried to discern the root cause.
If an enterprise has a monitoring plan and solution that includes a combination of observation across backbone and last mile networks, they would be able to collect data on the availability and performance of real end users trying to access digital services on their home or office networks, including pinpointing DNS as the root cause.
6. Ultimately, communication is key
A communication plan that lays out responsibilities for every role and clear contact channels can alleviate confusion during an outage. It is important to take control of media communications with clearly laid-out protocols, including the potential involvement of a PR firm in the case of a substantial Internet outage, to prevent your enterprise from being a victim of speculation and brand erosion.
Take a lesson from the November 16 Google Cloud outage and establish a process where you are able to change the DNS or CDN configuration to point users to a clearly designed error page that acknowledges the failure and assures resolution with honesty and transparency. Practice your communication plan regularly, so that teams are always prepared, and your end users know what is going on.
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