Today’s businesses no longer need to make the difficult decision between cloud and on-premises solutions. It’s no longer all or nothing. Hybrid SQL servers offer firms the best of both worlds. But how can you overcome the challenges of building a hybrid infrastructure to take advantage of the opportunities of this approach?
What is a hybrid SQL server?
A hybrid SQL server environment lets you connect your on-premises and cloud servers to maximize performance, reduce costs, and improve data security.
Common reasons for switching to a hybrid solution include:
- Improving overall performance
- Part of a long-term cloud migration strategy
- Disaster recovery preparations
- Legal or regulatory restrictions to cloud-based data storage
One of the biggest issues firms face is the sunk-cost fallacy. After years of investing in on-premises systems, there’s little desire to shift to a dual- or cloud-based solution. The words ‘But we’ve always done it this way’ hang silently in the air. Eyes are drawn to the bottom line. Fearful of the imagined time and money a hybrid infrastructure might cost.
In other cases, companies switch to a hybrid approach for the flexibility it provides. Because each option alone doesn’t provide the resources needed for success, it’s a solution that allows these businesses to build the best infrastructure for their unique objectives.
However, switching to a hybrid approach can be challenging, especially without proper prep work, like any significant IT move. Otherwise, it’s impossible to create a consistent environment built with a consistent set of processes that promises a reliable and secure connection between your business and the cloud.
Before you begin your hybrid journey
Long before you begin building your infrastructure, gather your team, and take time assessing your existing set-up and your future needs. Identify:
- What you like and don’t like
- Where current solutions fail and succeed
- How it fits into your operations and objectives
- Current expenditure
Like any major business decision, you need to be confident that this is the right option for you. No company wants to be left with a white elephant, unused and left gathering dust.
For this reason, gaining internal buy-in with key stakeholders early in the process is critical to a successful switch to the hybrid approach. Once you have a clear direction – and an even clearer plan of attack – engage those affected by any change. Help them see your vision. Solicit feedback and motivate everyone to feel part of this project.
There are three key areas to consider:
Any review on the performance of a hybrid infrastructure must focus on its impact on operational processes, running costs, storage costs, savings, and scalability. Speed and reliability are strong datasets to study. These will clearly show key stakeholders where system improvements can be made – and the wider business impact now and after the changeover.
Hybrid SQL servers offer an excellent path to business growth, whatever your current size. You have more control, the ability to scale up and down as demands change. Many smaller businesses will even find that, initially, they can get started on a single server, adding resources to help them cope with increased volume as they continue to grow, which is ideal for businesses anticipating or experiencing rapid growth or those expanding into new locations and territories.
During this phase, identify any additional hardware and software requirements. Don’t neglect the training and extra staff this may demand to increase your chances of a successful (and ongoing switch) to a hybrid infrastructure.
Data security and operational resilience
With the threat of increasingly sophisticated cyber-attacks growing by the day, businesses need to be forever on their guard. Data security is a top priority – at a personal and enterprise level. If a firm’s hit by a data breach or outage, it can salvage a hard-earned reputation. But it can also have high legal and financial costs.
Facing a hostile online world, whole industries, such as the financial services sector, must meet global compliance standards on ‘operational resilience’: a company’s ability to store, secure, and defend any data it holds. An operationally resilient business is prepared for a data breach or system outage and can quickly recover from it. As with other data security laws, such as NIST and GDPR, failure to comply can result in fines of millions of dollars.
By managing data through a centralized, cloud-based server, you can better guarantee security. These systems will run the latest defenses with the most up-to-date patches. It limits the amount of data you hold on-site without removing on-prem from your arsenal. And you can schedule automated back-ups for compliance purposes – and just in case the worst happens.
Building your hybrid SQL server
Deciding on data stores
As a hybrid solution, you’ll have data stores both on-premises and in the cloud. Your reasons for this may vary, from upholding laws and regulations to concerns over data sovereignty. Many IT professionals like to have the data close to hand, right where they can keep an eye on it.
Key questions to ask around on-premise solutions:
- How much does data storage cost?
- Is the infrastructure scalable?
- Are disaster recovery processes in place?
The hybrid infrastructure allows you to broaden out, extending your on-prem storage to the cloud. There are several ways to harness the ‘best of both worlds.
Businesses looking for long-term, cost-effective storage solutions will want to see how best to move under-used or unneeded data to the cloud. You can then run on the most up-to-date or popular data. This can improve access times without systems carrying excess data (and paying for it, to boot).
Alternatively, you may choose to strictly use the cloud for hosting applications, connecting via your on-prem data store.
However, in most cases, when you introduce the hybrid approach, you’ll be boosting your existing on-prem configuration. After all, you already own the hardware; you’re complementing your set-up without unnecessary expenditure or business disruption.
In this scenario, your cloud infrastructure acts like a remote data center, a failsafe standing by to take the strain when needed and backing up your data in case of outage or loss.
AG and WSFC
To recreate this build in your own business, you can use the SQL server feature Always On Availability Group (AG) or the multi-node, Windows Server-specific Windows Server Failover Clustering (WSFC).
When using AG…
Configurations can be made to the AG, allowing you to duplicate your SQL databases across both on-prem and cloud servers. The procedure is less straightforward if you’re on SQL Server Standard Edition’s Basic AG.
This feature limits you to a single database for each AG and adds a further restriction by only allowing replicating one node to another. So, if you’re already using two nodes in your on-prem configuration, and your cloud SQL server is to act as your third node, it demands an upgrade to the Enterprise Edition of SQL Server.
When using WSFC…
Storage is the name of the game here if you’re creating a hybrid infrastructure with WSFC. Data on these clusters are shared across a Storage Area Network (SAN) – and so long as it’s there, any other node can gain access to it.
Unfortunately, since each WSFC node needs its own storage, a SAN can’t be shared or accessed via the cloud. If you find yourself in this position, configure SIOS DataKeeper to create a SANless cluster. This software optimizes performance, allowing synchronous and asynchronous replication ‘to achieve high availability and disaster recovery.
Essentially, then, it lets you replicate data in your on-premises storage onto a cloud-based virtual machine without database limits.
Disaster recovery is a critical part of your operational resilience. It’s the ability to bounce back to ‘business as usual.’ As noted, there are heavy fines for any avoidable data breach, so you’ll want to ensure data is secure, retains integrity, and that any synchronization process is fully secure.
Services such as Microsoft Azure Blob Storage offer backup and restore tools with unrestricted cloud storage. Note, however, that these services come at a cost.
Data integrity, meanwhile – knowing that the information you hold is consistent and accurate – requires a focus on keeping synchronization between on-prem and cloud as close as possible.
Microsoft, Amazon, and Google offer high-speed, direct cloud connections that provide the best route to success here – although again, there’s a cost attached. An alternative solution would be you use a VPN to connect to your remote data store securely. It’s potentially cheaper upfront, but your performance times may vary depending on your internet speeds.
Location is another factor in your disaster recovery preparation.
The closer your business is to a data center, the faster the connection.
Imagine your business has been struck by a natural disaster, like an earthquake. Your on-prem systems are down: Gone! If you’ve chosen a data center nearby, then it’s likely that data has gone – or will take time to retrieve. Where does that leave your company?
The trick is to choose a data center that’s far enough away from your site without compromising on those too far out to guarantee high-speed data access.
Making the right decision
Moving to a hybrid SQL server infrastructure isn’t a case of just flipping a switch. It takes serious preparation and a team that understands how to bring on-prem and cloud together most efficiently and effectively.
It won’t be the right choice for every business. But it can present a flexible, scalable solution to meet modern business needs for those who can spy the opportunities. Indeed, after a thorough review of your IT systems, you may decide to stick with on-premises solutions or make a full migration to the cloud.