We’ve all been there. You’re looking up a Luke Cage episode recap or buying clothes online when suddenly your favorite site disappears, leaving nothing but a server error page. Sometimes it can be even worse, with the website not even loading in the first place.
Obviously, there can be many reasons behind such failures which they can affect all kinds of sites. But they’re quite common: barely a week going by without a major company’s downtime problems hitting the headlines. While issues can relate to human error, natural disasters or even hacking, they all ultimately tend to come down to a failure related to the servers on which the sites are stored.
So, what does actually happen when the websites we know and love face server problems? And what do the owners of our favorite sites do to keep their content up and running?
Preparing for disaster
Putting the availability of a website in the same sentence as the word “disaster” might seem like an exaggeration to the uninitiated, but considering the vast majority of our data is now digital, any company or organization tends to have an IT disaster recovery plan.
This disaster recovery plan should outline exactly what the business would do if operations were hit by major problems, and their critical IT systems (often including their website) were at risk of going down. To some, losing a site for a few hours may not seem like a big deal. However, website time offline for a retailer or other company that sells services or even information can ultimately mean losing customers, money and result in a damaged reputation.
Going beyond website downtime, major businesses need to ensure their business procedures and functions are not affected by such natural or human-induced disasters, to ensure critical processes are able to go on. Imagine a factory whose systems suddenly fail: production has to come to a standstill until they are resolved. In the case of websites, one hour of downtime is the equivalent of having to close your shop for one hour: customers are unable to shop or browse, and can’t be sure you’ll be open the next time they decide to visit either.
Worryingly, research has found that small businesses often do not have plans in place, which is a dangerous approach that could ultimately put their services at risk.
Having your back
As with many things, the best way to keep a website up and running is to have a backup copy. This is usually stored on a different server to the active site, purely in case of the original server suffering a failure.
Of course, if you have a backup version of anything you need to keep it up to date. With this in mind, servers will exchange information in order to ensure that the backup is primed and ready to go should it be required to go live. This can happen in different ways depending on the needs of the specific website.
For example, a so-called ‘hot’ back-up site will be constantly updated with the same information as the live site and will also send back an acknowledgment that the information has been received. This approach is vital for major news outlets or big businesses which need reassurance that everything is up to date.
A ‘warm’ approach means the backup version will send acknowledgment only after a few changes. This is more likely to be used by businesses which are more able to cope in the event of downtime.
Finally, a ‘cold failover’ will see details sent to the site but no acknowledgments made. This tends to be used by websites which only carry information that is not likely to change over time.
Keeping up (and running)
While we all get frustrated when a favorite website or shopping portal doesn’t open, it is the businesses behind those domains which feel that frustration most of all.
As you can see, a lot is going on in the background to ensure that web users can always access the information they require – even if that’s episode recaps of Luke Cage.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online publication and multimedia space for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association and executive producer of the Black Girl Nerds Podcast.