The Wikipedia Outage and Failover

The recent Wikipedia outage shows the problems with a typical failover system. The European data center that served Wikipedia’s servers there experienced a cooling failure, which caused the servers to shut down. This is a typical failure that can occur (though it should be prevented).

The event was logged in the admin logs starting at 17:18 on March 24. All of Wikimedia’s server administration is at wikitech.wikimedia.org.

What happened next extended the outage longer than it should have been: the failover from the European data center to Wikipedia’s Florida data center failed to complete properly.

Certainly, to prevent this failure, the failover (and fail-back) could have been tested further, the process refined, and the tests done routinely.

However, there is another possibility: use an active standby instead. That is, instead of having a failover process kick in when failure occurs, use an active environment where there are redundant servers serving clients.

If you have a failover process, it is a sort of “opt-in” – the servers choose to take over from the failed servers. Thus there is a process (the failover) that must be tested, and tested often to make sure that it will work in a normal situation. Testing also means in many cases that an actual service outage must be experienced. This is an active-passive high availability cluster model: the passive server must be brought online and take over from the failed nodes.

Using an active but redundant environment means that if any server – or data center – dies, then service is degraded slightly and nothing more. This describes an active-active high availability cluster model. There is no need for monthly testing – and perhaps, no testing at all: during upgrade times, the servers can be taken out of service one at a time and the results monitored.

The usual argument against such redundancy is cost: the redundant servers need to be able to take on a particular load, which is thus unavailable to other uses in normal operation. Yet, how much downtime can you experience before you start losing money or public good will?

If Wikipedia had put their servers together so that a failover was not necessary, it might have saved them from going down for several hours.

Contributing to Wikipedia: Getting Deep

Writing is much more a part of system administration than most people acknowledge. A good writer will be more likely to produce quality documentation and presentations and other documents.

Writing for Wikipedia can be one method that you can use to improve your writing (by seeing other’s writing, and by getting reviews from others). However, contributing to Wikipedia is also a way to give back to the community, a way to show appreciation for what Wikipedia provides.

The most obvious is to just edit any article that needs it, and to improve its wording and spelling. However, there are techniques that are not as obvious in which you can participate in the growth of Wikipedia.

First, there is the Wikipedia Community Portal – a sort of single point of entry for contributing to Wikipedia. This should be a starting point for anyone "going deep" into Wikipedia contributions.

One can also join a Wikipedia Patrol. Wikipedia patrols watch over a certain type of Wikipedia page for problems and assist in making pages better.

For example, one join the Recent Changes Patrol, watching the Recent Changes page (reloading every so many seconds for instance) for new edits, and check any that appear to need closer examination: edits that are from IP addresses, or that have no comments – or edits that come from users that are making a lot of edits rapidly.

One could also join the Random Page Patrol, selecting a random page to improve.

Another thing to do is to join a Wikipedia WikiProject. For instance, there is the Wikiproject Circus – which is focused on improving pages about circuses. (By the way – you really should visit the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, sometime…)

Contributing – and improving your writing and others – is not limited to Wikipedia: you can add your abilities to Wikipedia’s sister projects:

Add your voice to Wikipedia!

You can also work on similar sites that are not directly related to Wikipedia – such as WikiHow (how-to manuals) or others – but Wikipedia and its related sites are probably better because of their respectability, their focus towards writing (articles, etc) and their wide audiences.

Webware 100

CNet has released their 2009 list of the 100 Best Web applications in 10 categories, plus the editor’s choice for the best Web applications that weren’t otherwise included.

There are quite a few, including just about every major browser on the planet. There are a few that are not in the lists, but should be. Here are some of my favorites that are and aren’t included:

Zoho

Zoho (a winner in the Productivity section) is unlike any other documentation suite online: they have everything – and the most interesting stuff is free. I keep wanting to use them, and would if my work was web-only. One of the most important reasons I like Thinkfree Office is the seamless integration between the desktop and the web; Evernote (another entry) does this too.

Evernote

Evernote was one of the Editor’s Picks. Evernote is essentially an electronic collection of notes that gets synchronized with their servers and made available to you online. Thus, you can work at your desk with desktop speeds, and let it update to the web so you can look at your notes on the go.

Pidgin

Pidgin (a winner in the Communications category) is the former GAIM instant messaging client, and supports a variety of services, as well as plug-ins. What makes Pidgin so nice is that it runs on everything – it really does. There’s versions for Windows and Linux, a version called Adium for Macintosh, and a text console version called Finch. What’s not to like?

Wikipedia

Wikipedia (one of the winners in Search and Reference) is an online encyclopedia that you can edit. If you find a mistake, don’t just complain: fix it! I edit regularly – any time I find bad English, I correct it – doing my part to make Wikipedia an excellent resource.

Not only that, but there is also the French Wikipedia or the Russian Wikipedia – or numerous others that could also use your help – even an Esperanto Wikipedia!

Thinkfree Office

How did they miss Thinkfree Office? This is one of my favorite applications, and I use it daily. I bought the Macintosh version ages ago (before web synchronization was as nice as it is now).

Not giving Thinkfree Office a place in the awards is a real mistake.

Data.gov

This is brand new – perhaps just too new for the awards – but the United States government put all the public data they had available onto Data.gov and made it easily available to all. Certainly, it is of most interest to United States citizens – but a lot of the data should be interesting to others as well.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn, to me, is a social networking web site for adults. Professionalism is paramount, and connections can truly be useful and helpful. You can get back in touch with old colleagues and catch up on what they are doing, and more. Not including LinkedIn was a real surprise for me also.

SpiderOak

SpiderOak provides excellent backup service with multi-platform support: Windows, Linux – its supported. Old versions of files – and deleted files – can be retrieved from the user interface on whatever platform you are using. Very simple, and very easy.

Toodledo

Toodledo is a To Do List manager: simple, clean, and easy to use. It integrates with iGoogle, with Firefox, and others, along with numerous export and import capabilities. If you are willing to keep your To Do list online (sadly, I wasn’t), this is a must – especially for GTD adherents.

ReadItLater

The Read It Later application is no less than brilliant – every time you see a web site you want to read – don’t read it (wasting otherwise productive time): save it and read it later. This is a wonderful idea, and I use it all the time. Now if only I could remember to actually read them….

Wolfram Alpha

WolframAlpha, the new offering from Wolfram is absolute genius. It is like a fact-based search engine – like a cross between Wikipedia, Google, and the CIA World Factbook – but even that doesn’t cover it all. If it has to do with facts or computation, WolframAlpha can handle it.

And that doesn’t even cover Wolfram’s other offerings, like: WolframTones, free computer-generated tones for your mobile phone; Wolfram Demonstrations, explaining and demonstrating mathematical concepts at all skill levels; Wolfram Mathworld, a one-stop resource on mathematics; and even more!

At one time I seriously considered a carreer in mathematics; this site is a mathemetician’s dream come true…

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