Fukushima sends Japanese IT to the cloud
Disaster recovery planning has had a shakeup since 3/11
Analysis The devastating triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown which struck Japan in March 2011, has led many IT managers to rebuild their infrastructure with a key focus on disaster recovery and business continuity, according to experts.
It’s an effort which has had obvious knock-on benefits for cloud computing, virtualisation and mobile vendors touting their wares in the land of the rising sun but also teaches some important lessons about IT best practice.
Now the dust has settled on one of the world’s worst disasters in recorded history, the short and longer term impact on IT operations becomes clear.
Traditional telecommunications went down, with many users turning to internet-based channels to keep business operations functioning. Rolling blackouts also hit many areas of the country in the weeks and months following the meltdown at Fukushima after the government closed all of the nation’s nuclear power stations as a precaution.
“Power failure continued longer than expected and fuel for home-owned electric generators could not be supplied; transportation was paralysed and the workforce could not assemble in the first place; communication channels were lost even when using multiple carriers; and the power supply from multiple sources got shut off,” Hitachi Consulting senior director Makoto Nakamura told El Reg. “It was a trigger to rethink the fundamentals – where to physically place datacentres, and to what extent companies should rely on information systems.”
At VMWorld, VMware’s APAC GM Andrew Dutton told Vulture South's Simon Sharwood, many Japanese firms have taken the lessons of 3/11 on board to re-build their IT infrastructure, with business continuity in mind.
“We’re seeing lots of Unix migration over to x86, lots of mainframe applications being withered down and put into legacy and new ones developed to take their pace. It’s changing quite quickly and it’s the commercial companies not the government which are driving it,” he told El Reg.
“So many customers have lost so much information that was buried in PCs and the PCs got buried in the mud. They need back-up and they want to go to non-shaky places and they want to use exactly the same infrastructure … to take the data back if something changes in the political scene.”
Other vendors broadly agreed. IT services firm Dimension Data, now a part of NTT, told The Reg it has received more DR-driven business and enquiries from Japanese firms post 2011 for its global managed cloud delivery service: MCP.
Microsoft has also been a well publicised beneficiary from the events of two years ago and referenced big local wins for the its Office 365 cloud suite when quizzed by El Reg, including e-commerce giant Rakuten, Japan Airlines and Osaka Ohtani University.
“Following the earthquake and tsunami disasters in 2011, there have definitely been more Japanese businesses moving to the cloud or considering a move. We have seen increased interest and uptake for Office 365 and Windows Azure, especially among SMBs,” a spokesperson claimed.
“In May this year, we also added two domestic data centers—one near Tokyo and another in the Kansai region further south. By using two regions, our customers are able to build configurations for domestic disaster recovery, while having improved performance at the same time.”
Frost & Sullivan’s Mayank Kapoor agreed that more Japan-based firms, especially SMBs, have turned to the cloud to consume IT services post-3/11, although he hesitated from branding these efforts an “IT rebuild” per se.
“The change now is that [SMBs] too are taking into account DR and BCP when making these decisions to outsource IT or move to cloud service provider,” he told The Reg.
Larger enterprises may have been more prepared on paper from a DR/BCP stand-point, with policies and multi-site datacentre facilities in place, but in practice it took the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster to focus minds, he added.
“Due to the lack of such an event in the past, [DR and BCP] were not a top priority and sometimes overlooked. Even when using public cloud services, some large enterprises ignored DR and hence, when a public cloud service provider goes down, these enterprises faced issues on availability and loss of data,” said Kapoor.
Hitachi Consulting’s Nakamura predicted “large revisions in organisations and personnel” over the coming years as Japanese firms look to spread their information systems globally to reduce the potential impact of another 3/11.
“When the manufacturing industry was accelerating globalisation as a contingency plan, it became a trigger to rethink the whole IT architecture, for example, using cloud computing for backup, possible system locations, and how to build the network,” he added.
Service providers take flight
It’s not just IT managers in end user organisations that have been taking a good hard look at data recovery and business continuity planning.
Comms service providers have also been quick to improve the resilience of their operations since 2011 with NTT pushing ahead with multiple datacentre locations across Asia and Softbank teaming up with Korean operator KT.
A joint venture of theirs has already seen the opening of a datacentre in Gimhae, South Korea.
The centre has apparently been built specifically with Softbank’s Japanese business customers in mind and will use a submarine fibre optic cable run by the firms to connect the two countries.
In fact, Softbank has been one of Japan’s more proactive technology providers in the months and years since March 2011. Most notably, it announced ambitious plans to build a network of floating mobile phone base stations to service customers in the event of another catastrophe which knocks out cellular infrastructure.
The 3G base station is attached to a helium-filled balloon floating 100 metres off the ground and receives a signal from a truck-based ground station which is either wired into the rest of the cellular infrastructure or is set up to receive satellite comms.
A Softbank spokeswoman told The Reg that ten such balloon-based systems have now “been deployed all over Japan”.
Portable PCs to the rescue
The 2011 disasters also had an impact on the client PC market in Japan, according to IDC’s Masahiro Katayama.
The percentage of “portable PCs” in enterprises jumped from a flat 50.9 per cent in Q3/4 2010 to 54.3 per cent in Q2 2011, driven partly by the increasing need to work from home in the immediate aftermath but also to cope with power cuts.
“Fukushima nuclear plant shut down and Tokyo faced severe power shortages, with noon the most dangerous time. So PC vendors recommended customers use portable PCs with batteries during that time,” he explained to The Register.
Other lessons learned by Japanese IT managers which will probably be of less use to their counterparts elsewhere in the world are outlined in a Gartner report from last year: Applying Lessons Learned From Catastrophic Events in the Decade Since 9/11.
In the report, analyst Roberta Witty details how disaster recovery efforts in Japan were complicated by the fact that different parts of the country use different electrical standards, making the replacement of computers, phones and other kit more problematic.
Multi-nationals with operations there also had to contend with severe language difficulties when trying to transfer key data to back-up sites outside the country during the first few days after 3/11. Most expats had been evacuated so there were few staff left with the requisite language skills to “make the necessary prioritisation decisions about the data”, the report said.
It adds the following perspective:
This series of events truly represents the worst-case scenario for the BCM professional — and thus offers perhaps the most valuable set of lessons learned … The almost unimaginable chain of events in Japan – and their on-going "ripple effects" on enterprises worldwide – make it clear that the unthinkable is no longer unthinkable. BCM professionals must plan for the complete loss of people, facilities and resources for extended periods.
With the Fukushima crisis still rumbling on and with a string of subsequent global natural disasters, from the Thai floods of 2011 to Hurricane Sandy, this advice has never been more pertinent for IT managers. ®