Availability: Is it over-rated?

The general impression is that identity management systems — in particular the authentication and authorization components — need to run continuously in order to ensure users can access their business applications.  Enterprise IT shops are accustomed to building in redundancy in hardware and rigorous process to ensure systems ‘stay up’.  It is not uncommon for a critical business system to have a target up-time of 99.99% or even 99.999%.

Why is this the case?  Information systems availability (or lack thereof) can impact productivity and, for private businesses, profitability.  And the case of medical systems — actual clinical systems, not informational websites — an outage to a system can impact health service delivery and have negative outcomes for patients.  As a result, it is common for an identity management system to be designed for high availability, and for organizations to fund (hardware, software, people, etc.) the service at a level appropriate to meet this goal.

But not all systems need this type of high availability.

Take, for example, a set of web applications offered to the public for access to government information.  These applications represent a sub-set of the business being conducted, i.e. they could be used to apply for funding or to access a library of online information products.  In my experience, this type of public-sector system is by far the most common type of application used by citizens online.

So here’s the bombshell — these type of systems do not need to be highly available…  24/7/365 access, highly redundant services, on-call technical analysts, etc. are not part of the requirements for these web applications.  Why? Because the expectations and needs of users for access are not as high as enterprise architects and overly concerned business folks lead us to believe.

Think about it for a moment: if a government website or application were down, what would most of us do?  Call our elected representative in a rage?  Close our business? Drive to the nearest service centre?

No. We’d do what we do when other websites are unavailable — surf on to the next one, spend some quality time on Facebook or check our email…


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