AWS Public Sector Blog

Best practices for creating highly available workloads

Many public sector organizations that are moving to the cloud often misunderstand that the architecture of Amazon Web Services (AWS) Regions and Availability Zones fundamentally changes how they should think about disaster recovery and resiliency. Prior to joining AWS, I spent many years helping organizations understand and build out disaster recovery plans. Now at AWS, I work with customers of all sizes across the public sector to build cost-effective and resilient workloads. In this blog post, I share some best practices to answer common questions about building highly available workloads, and share some ways to consider high availability, disaster recovery, and application resiliency within AWS.

Do I need to deploy my workload in multiple Regions?

When organizations ask “Do I need to go multi-Region to support my disaster recovery needs?” my first question is to ask about the workload’s recovery time objective (RTO), which is how much downtime you can tolerate, and recovery point objective (RPO), which is how much data you can afford to lose.

The primary mistake I see many organizations make is not having well-defined RTO and RPO targets before beginning to talk about disaster recovery. Every organization wants zero downtime and zero data loss, but the reality is that systems break. Even Werner Vogels, chief technology officer (CTO) of Amazon, stated “Failures are a given and everything will eventually fail over time”.

In the on-premises world, running workloads across several data centers—what most organizations think of as “disaster recovery”—is necessary for many RTO/RPO targets, as the data center is a single point of failure. However, when moving workloads to AWS, a best practice is to deploy a workload across multiple Availability Zones. Within the AWS Global Infrastructure, an Availability Zone consists of one or more discrete data centers, with redundant power, networking, and connectivity housed in separate facilities. For most organizations moving to the cloud, deploying a workload across multiple Availability Zones already provides the equivalent of the disaster recovery objective they aim to achieve in an on-premises environment.

Every organization and workload are different. Some public sector organizations might have workloads that can tolerate a higher RTO target (e.g., longer time to recovery). For example, a nonprofit organization’s fundraising application might only need an RTO/RPO target of hours. Conversely, a nonprofit healthcare organization might have a critical workload that lives depend on, leading to an RTO/RPO target of minutes or even real-time. While no organization wants downtime, keep in mind that as RTO/RPO targets decrease (e.g., quicker recovery and less data loss), cost and complexity can increase dramatically (Figure 1).

Figure 1. As RTO/RPO decreases, like when you reduce the time you can be down and the amount of potential data loss, costs can increase substantially.

Figure 1. As RTO/RPO decreases, like when you reduce the time you can be down and the amount of potential data loss, costs can increase substantially.

That said, AWS provides design patterns for a number of disaster recovery options, depending on an organization’s RTO/RPO targets. Organizations need to review their RTO and RPO targets, the cost implications of those targets, and decide what is appropriate for each of their workloads.

How do I make my workload as resilient as possible?

While an organization may not need to deploy their workload simultaneously in multiple Regions (say as part of a multi-Region active/active disaster recovery strategy), they still want to make sure that disruptions are minimized and the workload is as resilient as possible.

AWS has published many patterns in the AWS Builders’ Library to demonstrate how AWS thinks about and builds highly available workloads. However, some key patterns can provide the greatest immediate impact to most public sector organizations.

Consider control planes and data planes

At AWS, we often talk about minimizing blast radius. While this is a huge topic, one of the elements that go into minimizing blast radius is thinking about your distributed systems in terms of control planes and data planes. A data plane is responsible for executing your customer requests, and the control plane is responsible for managing and vending your customer configuration. As an example, for an organization that has created a personalization engine to drive engagement across their application, the mechanism that delivers recommendations to users would be considered the data plane, and the backend services that ingest and clean data, and train a machine learning model, would be considered the control plane. If for some reason the control plane becomes unavailable, the data plane continues to execute customer requests. Data planes are typically simple, whereas control planes can be much more complex. By decoupling these systems so they operate independently from each other, you can build systems that have higher customer-facing availability.

Implement static stability to support availability

Another common pattern is static stability. Static stability means that a system can continue to operate as normal without the need to make changes during a failure or unavailability of dependencies. The most obvious example of static stability can be illustrated with an Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) workload.

For example, with a workload running on Amazon EC2 across three Availability Zones within an Amazon EC2 Auto Scaling group, each Availability Zone contains a single Amazon EC2 instance. If the workload requires all three Amazon EC2 instances to run at the same time so that it can provide the desired performance objectives, then this isn’t static stability. If an Availability Zone fails for any reason, the Amazon EC2 Auto Scaling group will need to provision more instances for the workload to meet its performance criteria. If there is an impact to instance scaling, the workload may not be able to scale Amazon EC2 instances in a timely manner (Figure 2).

Figure 2: A workload that does not demonstrate static stability. The workload requires three Amazon EC2 instances, but only has two after Availability Zone 2 experiences downtime.

Figure 2. A workload that does not demonstrate static stability. The workload requires three Amazon EC2 instances, but only has two after Availability Zone 2 experiences downtime.

Even during an interruption of service, static stability means that a workload can still meet performance criteria. To achieve static stability in this example, the workload should run two Amazon EC2 instances in each Availability Zone. Even with the loss of an Availability Zone and an impact to the auto scaling service, the workload can continue to meet performance objectives (Figure 3).

Figure 3. A workload that demonstrates static stability. This workload requires three Amazon EC2 instances and has four, even when Availability Zone 2 experiences downtime.

Figure 3. A workload that demonstrates static stability. This workload requires three Amazon EC2 instances and has four, even when Availability Zone 2 experiences downtime.

Static stability is a workload property that AWS works hard to achieve. Maintaining this property may mean that your workload is slightly over-provisioned, but it is more resilient to unexpected failures.

Build with automation to save time and support scalability

The final pattern is automation. Many of the organizations I work with don’t have enough people or funding to move their mission forward in the way they would like. Automation is a way for technology to support the mission, not hinder it or act as a distraction.

Organizations usually use source control tools to protect and version source code. Why should cloud infrastructure be any different? There are many different infrastructure as code (IaC) tools available, like AWS CloudFormation, the AWS Cloud Development Kit (AWS CDK), or Terraform. Find a tool you like and use it consistently. Never make manual changes to a production environment.

Building automation does require more upfront time, which is why some organizations decide to skip it—sacrificing long-term gains for the short-term. However, successful organizations put in the time to automate their deployments and treat their infrastructure as code. This practice can pay off in the future, and as your organization decides to scale, you can re-deploy your architecture and workloads to multiple AWS accounts with ease. Automation also supports disaster recovery objectives by helping deploy workloads simply across multiple AWS Regions. Due to automation, one of the public sector customers I work with is able to deploy changes to their workloads over 6,000 times a week.

Conclusion and next steps in creating highly available workloads

In this blog post, I discussed considerations for building a disaster recovery plan. An organization’s disaster recovery plan should be based around recovery time and recovery point objectives for each of the workloads in question. These objectives will help the organization determine what type of disaster recovery solution is most appropriate, given cost and other resource considerations.

Key workload patterns can help organizations implement more resilient workloads. These patterns include reducing the blast radius of your workloads, so if something fails, the impact is limited and does not negatively impact your entire workload; static stability, which allows workload to continue to serve customer-facing requests even in the face of a negative impact; and automation, which can help teams of any size scale beyond what they could ever do otherwise.

As a next step, examine your workloads and determine what the RTO/RPO objectives are. Look at your existing architecture and determine if you can remove bottlenecks or other single points of failure. Do you have control plane functionality intermingled with data plane functionality? Can you refactor this code to provide better resiliency? Are team members spending time on undifferentiated activities or other activities that don’t directly move your mission forward? If so, look to automate.

Learn more about the engineering patterns AWS uses to build systems in the Amazon Builders’ Library. Read the AWS Fault Isolation Boundaries whitepaper to learn how AWS is built and how you can build a workload on AWS to support your resiliency goals.

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