Website High Availability and Power Grid Reliability

An Ignored Co-Dependence of Our Internet

Website hosting availability (high availability) is communicated as a percentage of uptime and defined by how many “nines” are in the percentage. One big factor that is not figured into this equation is the reliability of the country’s power grid to feed power to run the Internet.

In information technology, high availability refers to a system or component that is continuously operational for a desirably long length of time. Terms such as five nines and nine nines are thrown around, but what do they really mean?

Well, if your server is two nines (99%), your site will be down 14.4 minutes a day, 1.68 hours a week, 7.2 hours a month and 3.65 days a year.

Nines chart

To put this into perspective, on August 19, 2013, Amazon lost $66,240 per minute while down for a total of 15 to 40 minutes, at $993,600 to $2,649,600 of lost sales.

For Amazon, this is not an overwhelming issue to overcome, but for other businesses, if they go down at peak times, it can be devastating. So, many businesses are opting to pay for cloud serving that guarantees up to 11 nines.

There is a sense of security that cloud-based serving has redundancies built in, as your site will be hosted in multiple locations around the country or even the world. So if a server goes down (for any reason), another server still working will pick up traffic.

But what is not talked about widely is that in the power grid in the United States, and in most of the world, there is not this sense of redundancy that we have taken for granted within the cloud hosting industry. Server farms are set up with diesel generators that are tested on a monthly basis to protect themselves from power grid failures.

According to Ted Koppel’s book Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, our power grid is built upon thousands of aging transformers that convert electricity voltage to be sent great distances through high-voltage power lines, and then must be transformed to a safe lower voltage for consumers to use. These transformers that convert electricity voltage up and down cost $3-$8 million apiece and weigh 400,000 to 600,000 pounds, and each one of these transformers is highly specialized per location and, for the most part, not interchangeable. Most of these transformers are only able to be moved via railways across the country, and some of these old railway lines are not in existence anymore. This only touches on the tip of the power-grid problem; for more information, please read the book.

So our electrical infrastructure, to say the least, is quite brittle. To compound this problem even more, the majority of transformers are produced outside the United States and take several months to build. In the event of a natural disaster, terrorist event or just the depreciation of the unit, a region can be without power for a number of months. With so much of our modern world being controlled and managed through technology, this one has fallen far behind. Simply put, if you do not have electricity, you do not have the Internet.


Digital Footprint