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The Cloud and eMNS

When it comes to Mass Notification and Emergency Communications, there is no silver lining in the cloud.

Mass Notification and the Need for a Distributed Architecture

Prolonged network outages after major disasters; natural, human caused, and technological highlight the vulnerability of cloud based mass notification and emergency communications systems. To avoid this, emergency managers must have a reliable on premise emergency communication system capable of notifying and accounting for personnel.

Today, many organizations are adopting cloud-based services for the provisioning of business functionality. Many business applications are very well suited to this model of application delivery. Examples of such applications include: email, CRM, accounting, and helpdesk. The biggest driver is usually to reduce internal application and infrastructure support costs.

The United States Marine Corps (USMC) needed an advanced analytical capability that could address the unique challenges that analysts face in a war zone.
See: FIELDING AN ADVANCED ANALYTIC CAPABILITY IN A WAR ZONE

This is the KEY take away from the document:

‘In a hostile operating environment, several factors disrupt the real-time flow of the latest intelligence across all military echelons. Operating with low bandwidth and limited connectivity, forward companies often lack an accurate and updated intelligence picture of the area of operations. Meanwhile, the information that analysts at reachback facilities need in order to support forward units is typically spread across disconnected databases and cannot be accessed through a single interface. For these reasons, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) sought an advanced analytic capability that could integrate its existing data sources quickly, improve situational awareness at all echelons, reduce the amount of time users spent searching for data, and empower analysts to focus on complex, higher-level analytic tasks.’

The cloud does not always have a silver lining and is not a one-size-fits-all delivery model.  Here is another compelling Cloud MNS story: “In planning its emergency response system, Eastman Chemical decided cloud too risky”. 

There remain many compelling reasons to use a highly proven on-premise delivery model like the Desktop Alert Total Alert System when it comes to mass notification and emergency communications. The most common of those are:

  • Quality of Service is a critical concern
  • Reliability of Service is a critical concern
  • Security and confidentiality of data is a critical concern
  • Integration with on-site systems and/or customization of the application is desirable

Let’s look at each of these points in turn with particular focus on an on premise mass notification system such as the DTA Total Alert solution.

Local IT infrastructure

An often cited reason to move to a cloud model is the reduction in local IT infrastructure and support costs. Further, the cloud service provider accepts the responsibility of ensuring that hardware fails over in the event of a problem and resources are adequately load-balanced to deal with surges in required capacity.

While it’s often true that up-front costs of an on premise solution are higher, it’s not always the case as many organizations already have infrastructure in place. The DTA Middleware Engine is a lightweight, highly performant web application with a small footprint without expensive hardware requirements, and is designed to be deployed on existing infrastructure.

Redundancy can be handled through failover to another host (and the cloud explained below). To simplify this, the Total Alert solution is readily deployable as a virtual machine. Using a virtual machine management solution such as VMware HA, failover can occur to secondary virtual machines on the same physical hardware, as well as to virtual machines on other physical hardware. Failover is handled automatically without user intervention. The solution even avoids a single point of failover at the management level, as it can be deployed with up to five primary hosts in a single cluster. Each primary host has the capability of acting as the autonomous managing agent if the active primary host fails. Further, if a failover operation itself fails for any reason, for example a new host cannot be brought online due to a resource constraint, the Distributed Resource Scheduler automatically attempts to adjust the cluster, for example by bringing other hosts out of standby mode. The Distributed Resource Scheduler can also add standby hosts to the cluster in the event of surges in capacity.

In summary, the on premise model has the promise of offering greater operational control, flexibility and reliability than an out-sourced cloud solution. For this reason, we see the DTA EMNS distributed architecture as being a preferable delivery model for such a critical application.

Quality of Service

  • Quality of Service (QoS) is an area where on premise has a major advantage over cloud services. Most cloud services offer Service Level Agreements (SLAs) based only on best effort, and in particular QoS metrics are often not defined at all.
  • Latency – a cloud service, even if connected to the organization with an expensive dedicated fat pipe, is going to suffer from higher latency than an on premise solution simply because of the round-trip involved. i.e. Slower Alert Delivery and Alert Receipt. Further a cloud service using shared resources could introduce further latency if an alert is held in a queue due to a busy resource. When lives are at stake, seconds count.
  • Performance – a local alert, raised locally, and intended to be delivered locally to multiple resources, is clearly going to benefit from a local infrastructure. When delivery time of critical notifications is of primary importance, sending an alert request to a cloud service, for it only to be sent back to the same location for mass delivery is obviously less than optimal. An on premise solution offers the fastest response times. When lives are at stake, seconds count.
  • Throughput – an on premise solution can be designed to meet the capacity needs of the organisation. A cloud service would have to provide (at cost) dedicated resources to meet exacting throughput targets, which negates the cloud’s advantage of lower costs through the use of shared resources.
  • Availability – we’ve seen in the previous section that an on premise solution can be highly available through the use of autonomous failover and load-balancing. Another advantage over cloud solutions is that another potential point of failure is eliminated, that is the internet connection itself. Even with a redundant internet connection, a cloud based EMNS is potentially unavailable in an INFOCON 4 situation where internet access might be severely restricted.
  • Cloud as a HQ Management and Redundancy Option – an on premise solution can be configured to utilize the cloud so that an organizations HQ locations may always maintain a hybrid real-time bi-directional snapshot of all of its on premise DTA MNS deployments across all regions. As such, the functionality of a centrally hosted cloud MNS is not deprecated by a distributed architecture; it is actually enhanced! Because over 95% of all system overhead and bandwidth is managed by the local sites the bandwidth utilization in and for the cloud is miniscule, resulting in faster communications across the enterprise coupled with an exponential reduction in cloud costs. In the extreme circumstance where several layers of redundancy are unavailable locally, as a last and rarely used option the cloud can jump in and provide temporary MNS functionality until the local system comes back on line.

In summary, the on premise model offers better quality of service than an out-sourced cloud solution and for this reason it’s seen as being preferable for a performance critical application such as an EMNS system. The DTA EMNS has been designed from the ground up with high performance as a number one priority.

Security and Data Confidentiality

With an on premise solution, data is held on site, and can therefore be as secure as the site allows it to be. When a cloud service is used, new security risks are inevitably introduced.
The contents of alert could be highly confidential, and the recipients of the alert could be identified by multiple types of personal data: name, phone number, email etc.

The moment the data leaves the site i.e. The Internet of Things (IoT); it is potentially open to multiple new risks. Hackers continuously invent new ways to intercept and decode HTTPS traffic, for example. Additionally, cloud services are vulnerable to

  • Data breaches and data loss – cloud services introduce new avenues of attack. Many high profile cases of the release of personal data have occurred in recent years as a result of malicious and intrusive actions. Data can be released publicly, or erased completely.
  • Account or Service Hijacking – a hijacked cloud account could be seriously damaging in terms of both reputation and putting lives in jeopardy.
  • Insecure APIs – there is no universally acknowledged best way to secure a public internet facing API, and even using the best standards available, for example OAuth, poor implementation by a developer could lead to a flaw.
  • Denial-of-Service – denial-of-service attacks are a persistent threat to cloud services. A cloud service under attack is effectively unavailable during the attack. Attackers improvise increasingly sophisticated methods of conducting an assault.
  • Malicious Insiders – While a cloud service provider may have exacting security measures in place to prevent unauthorized access to their client’s data, risks from internal espionage always remain.
  • Shared Technology – In a cloud environment, the compromise of a single component exposes more than just the compromised customer; indeed, it could expose the entire environment. One compromised customer could, therefore, have serious consequences for all customers.

In summary, the on premise model offers better security than an out-sourced cloud solution. The new security risks that are introduced by a cloud model are numerous and entirely unnecessary when a secure on premise solution exists. The DTA EMNS has been evaluated by the DoD, NATO and the Federal Government and found to be 100% compliant and with a less-than-one-minute alerting delivery engine to ip-connected devices.

Integration and Customization

The on premise delivery model offers significant advantages when it comes to integration and customization. Enterprise wide, single sign on technology using an organization’s own Active Directory is an example of where on premise is a natural fit. While cloud vendors have started to provide many useful federated integration’s across different cloud products, integration into existing on premise services is often bespoke development.

Another advantage of an on premise solution is the possibility of customization’s to fit specific organizational requirements. Cloud deployments, by their very nature, are designed to provide identical functionality to all of their customers. This can have three undesirable impacts:

    • New functionality – new functionality critical to a single organization but not generally applicable to the cloud provider’s general customer base, is unlikely to receive priority attention.
    • Old functionality – functionality may be deprecated by a cloud service provider if its costly to maintain, or not being used by the majority of customers. However, for a single organization, this functionality might be critical to the way they operate, and costly to replace with the cloud provider’s ‘new’ method.
    • Upgrades – the organization has no control over cloud upgrades. This could lead to deprecation of necessary functionality as mentioned above, and the continuous need to retrain staff to use the new functionality.

In summary, the on premise model offers better options for integration and customization than an out-sourced cloud solution. At DTA we have the capability to address specific organisational requirements in a timely and manageable way.

Conclusions

In this document, we have attempted to explain the compelling reasons why an EMNS should be delivered using a hybrid on premise model and how the DTA EMNS architecture meets these requirements. It is our opinion that the on premise delivery model, and the DTA solution in particular, have numerous advantages over a cloud-based solution. Invested pundits for ‘Internet of Things (IoT) Cloud’ are slow to take heed of such factual information for obvious reasons. A centrally hosted cloud-based MNS presents a significantly higher lifecycle cost, much slower alerting capability and an untenable risk and reliability factor. When it comes to Mass Notification and Emergency Communications, there is no silver lining in the cloud.

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