If you are considering deploying your own Microsoft SQL Server instances in AWS EC2 you have some decisions to make regarding the resiliency of the solution. Sure, AWS will offer you a 99.99% SLA on your Compute resources if you deploy two or more instances across different availability zones. But don’t be fooled, there are a lot of other factors you need to consider when calculating your true application availability. I recently blogged about how to calculate your application availability in the cloud. You probably should have a quick read of that article before you move on.
When it comes to ensuring your Microsoft SQL Server instance is highly available, it really comes down to two basic choices: Always On Availability Group (AG) or SQL Server Failover Cluster Instance (FCI). If you are reading this article I’m making an assumption you are well aware of both of these options and are seriously considering using a SQL Server FCI instead of a SQL Server Always On AG.
Benefits of a Microsoft SQL Server Failover Cluster Instance
The following list summarize what AWS says are the benefits of a SQL Server FCI:
FCI is generally preferable over AG for SQL Server high availability deployments when the following are priority concerns for your use case:
License cost efficiency: You need the Enterprise Edition license of SQL Server to run AGs, whereas you only need the Standard Edition license to run FCIs. This is typically 50–60% less expensive than the Enterprise Edition. Although you can run a Basic version of AGs on Standard Edition starting from SQL Server 2016, it carries the limitation of supporting only one database per AG. This can become a challenge when dealing with applications that require multiple databases like SharePoint.
Instance-level protection versus database-level protection: With FCI, the entire instance is protected – if the primary node becomes unavailable, the entire instance is moved to the standby node. This takes care of the SQL Server logins, SQL Server Agent jobs, certificates, etc. that are stored in the system databases, which are physically stored in shared storage. With AG, on the other hand, only the databases in the group are protected, and system databases cannot be added to an AG – only user databases are allowed. It is the database administrator’s responsibility to replicate changes to system objects on all AG replicas. This leaves the possibility of human error causing the database to become inaccessible to the application.
DTC feature support: If you’re using SQL Server 2012 or 2014, and your application uses Distributed Transaction Coordinator (DTC), you are not able to use an AG as it is not supported. Use FCI in this situation.
Challenges with FCI in the Cloud
Of course, the challenge with building an FCI that spans availability zones is the lack of a shared storage device that is normally required when building a SQL Server FCI. Because the nodes of the cluster are distributed across multiple datacenters, a traditional SAN is not a viable option for shared storage. That leaves us with a two choices for cluster storage: 3rd party storage class resources like SIOS DataKeeper or the new Amazon FSx. Let’s take a look at what you need to know before you make your choice.
Service Level Agreement
Normally 99.99% availability represents the starting point of what is considered “highly available”. This is what AWS promises you for your compute resources when two or more are deployed in different availability zones.
In case you didn’t know the difference between three nines and four nines…
- 99.9% availability allows for 43.83 minutes of downtime per month
- 99.99% availability allows for only 4.38 minutes of downtime per month
By hosting your cluster storage on FSx despite your 99.99% compute availability, your overall application availability will be 99.9%. In contrast, EBS volumes that span availability zones, such as in a DataKeeper deployment, qualifies for the 99.99% SLA at both the storage and compute layers, meaning your overall application availability is 99.99%.
When configuring FSx for high availability, you will want to enable multi-AZ support. By enabling multi-AZ you have an effectively have a “preferred” AZ and a “standby” AZ. When you deploy your SQL Server FCI nodes you will want to distribute those nodes across the same AZs.
Now in normal situations, you will want to make sure the active cluster node resides in the same AZ as the preferred FSx storage node. This is to minimize the distance and latency to your storage, but also to minimize the costs associated with data transfer across AZs. As specified in the FSx price guide, “Standard data transfer fees apply for inter-AZ or inter-region access to file systems.”
In the unfortunate circumstance where you have a SQL Server FCI failure, but not a FSx failure, there is no mechanism to tie both the storage and compute together. In the event that FSx fails over, it will automatically fail back to the primary availability zone. However, best practices dictate SQL FCI remain running on the secondary node until root cause analysis is performed and fail back is typically scheduled to occur during maintenance periods. This leaves you in a situation where your storage resides in a different AZ, which will incur additional costs. Currently the cost for transferring data across AZs, both ingress and egress, is $0.01/GB.
Without keeping a close eye on the state of your FSx and SQL Server FCI, you may not even be aware that they are running in different regions until you see the data transfer charge at the end of the month.
In contrast, in a configuration that use SIOS DataKeeper, the storage failover is part of the SQL Server FCI recovery, ensuring that the storage always fails over with the SQL Server instance. This ensures SQL Server is always reading and writing to the EBS volumes that are directly attached to the active node. Keep in mind, DataKeeper will incur a data transfer cost associated with write operations which are replicated between AZs or regions. This data transfer cost can be minimized with the use of compression available in DataKeeper.
In an FSx multi-subnet configuration there is a preferred availability zone and a standby availability. Should the FSx file server in the preferred availability zone experience a failure, the file server in the standby AZ will recover. AWS reports that this recovery time takes about 30 seconds with standard shares. With the use of continuously available file shares Microsoft reports this failover time can be closer to 15 seconds. During this failover time, there is a brownout that occurs where reads and writes are paused, but will continue once recovery completes.
FSx multi-site has automatic failback enabled, meaning that for every unplanned failover of FSx, you also have an unplanned failback. In contrast, typically when a SQL Server FCI experience an unplanned failover you would either just leave it running on the secondary or schedule a failback after hours or during the next maintenance period.
SQL Server Analysis Services Cluster Not Supported with FSx
If you want to cluster SSAS, you will need a clustered disk resource like SIOS DataKeeper. The How to Cluster SQL Server Analysis Server white paper clearly states that SMB cannot be used and that cluster drives with drive letters must be used. In contrast, the DataKeeper Volume resource presents itself as a clustered disk and can be used with SSAS.
While FSx certainly can make sense for typical SMB uses like Windows user files and other non-critical services where 99.9% availability SLA suffices, FSx is an excellent option If you application requires high availability (99.99%) or HA/DR solutions that also span regions, the SIOS DataKeeper is the right fit.