Virtualization, Cloud, Infrastructure and all that stuff in-between

My ramblings on the stuff that holds it all together

Using the VCE/vBlock concept to aid disaster relief in situations like the Haiti Earthquake


Seeing the tragic events of the last couple of days in Haiti played out on the news spurred me into evolving some thinking that I had been working on, the sheer scale of infrastructure destruction left by the earthquake in Haiti is making it hard to get relief distributed via road, so airlifting and military assistance is the only realistic method of getting help around.

Whilst providing physical, medical, food and engineering relief is of paramount importance during a crisis, communications networks are vital to co-ordinate efforts between agencies, it is likely that whatever civil communications infrastructure, cell towers, landlines etc. are badly impacted by the earthquake so aid agencies rely on radio based systems, however as in the “business as usual” world the Internet can act as a well-understood common medium for exchanging digital information and services – if you can get access.

Crisis Camp is a very interesting and noble concept for gathering technically minded volunteers around the world to collaborate on producing useful tools for relief staff on the ground, missing people databases, geo-mapping mashups on Google Earth etc. using open source tools and donated people time makes this a free/low-cost soft-solution for relief agencies.

However, with the scale of infrastructure destruction in large disasters getting access to shared networks, bandwidth and cellular communications networks on the ground is likely to be difficult – in this post I propose a vendor neutral solution, whilst I reference the VCE/vBlock concept which is essentially an EMC/Cisco/VMware product line; the concept of a packaged, pre-built and quick to deploy infrastructure solution can apply equally to a single or multi-vendor “infrastructure care package” – standardisation and/or abstraction are the key to making it flexible (sound familiar to your day job?) by using virtual machines as the building blocks of useful services able to run on any donated/purchased/loaned hardware.

These care packages would typically be required for 2-3 months to aid disaster relief during the worst periods and whilst civil infrastructure is re-established. None of this stuff is free in the normal world, it’s a physical product, it’s tin, cables, margin and invoices but is flexible enough that it could be redeployed again and again as needs dictate, with my UN or DEC hat on this is a pool of shared equipment that can be sent around the world and deployed in 24hours to aid on the ground relief efforts, donated, loaned by vendors or sponsors.

What is it?


A bunch of low-power footprint commodity servers, storage and communications gear packed into a single, specialised shock-rack with a generator (gas/diesel/solar as available) and battery backup.

It makes heavy use of virtualization technologies to provide high-availability of data and services to work around individual equipment and/or rack failures due to damage or loss of power (generator out of fuel or localized aftershock etc.)

Because systems running to support relief operations typically will only be required for short term use, virtual appliances are an ideal platform, for example a pre-configured database cluster or web server farm, technologies like SpringSource can be used to deploy and bootstrap web applications around the infrastructure into virtual appliances.

Data storage and replication is achieved not using expensive hardware array based solutions but DAS storage within the blades (or shared disk stores) using virtual storage appliances like the HP Lefthand networks VSA or Celerra VSA or OpenFiler – allowing the use of cheap, commodity storage but achieving block-level replication between multiple storage locations via software – each blade uses storage within the same rack, if access to the storage fails it can be restarted on an alternative blade or an alternative rack (like the HA feature of vSphere)

These racks are deployed across a wide geographic area – creating a meshed wireless network using something like WiMax to handle inter-mesh and backhaul transit and local Femtocell/WiFi technology, providing 3 services

  • private communications – for inter rack replication and data backhaul
  • public data communications – wireless IP based internet access with a local proxy server/cache (backhaul via satellite or whatever is available – distributed across the mesh)
  • local access to a public cellular system femtocell (GSM, or whatever the local standard is)


The availability/load balancing features of modern hypervisors like VMware’s HA/DRS and FT technology can re-start virtual machines to an alternative rack should one fail. Because the VSA technology replicates datastores between all racks at a block level using a p2p type protocol it’s always possible to restart a virtual appliance elsewhere within the infrastructure – but on a much wider scale and with a real-impact.


Ok, but what does it do?

Even if you were to establish a meshed communications network to assist with disaster relief activities on the ground, bandwidth and back-haul to the Internet or global public telecoms systems will be at a premium, chances are any high-bandwidth civil infrastructure will be damaged or degraded and satellite technology is expensive and can have limited bandwidth and high-latency.

The mesh system this solution could provide can give a layer of local caching and data storage, thinking particularly with the Google Maps type mashups people at Crisiscamp are discussing to help co-ordinate relief efforts that can require transferring a large amount of data – if you could get a local data cache of all the mapping information within the mesh transfer times would be drastically reduced.

this is really just a bunch of my thoughts on how you can take current hypervisor technology and build a p2p type private cloud infrastructure in a hurry, virtualization technology brings a powerful opportunity in that it can support a large number of services in a small power footprint; the more services that can be moved from dedicated hardware and run inside a virtual machine (for example a VoIP call manager, video conferencing system or GSM base station manager) mean less demand for scarce fuel and power resources on the ground; and virtualization brings portability – less dependence on a dedicated “black-box” that is hard to replace in the field, virtualization means you can use commodity x86 hardware, and have enough spares to keep things working or work around failures.

The technology to build this type of emergency service is available today with some tweaking. The key is having it in-place and ready to ship on a plane to wherever it is needed in the world, some more developed nations have this sort of service in-country for things like emergency cellular networks following hurricanes but it will need a lot of international co-operation to make this a reality on a global scale.

Whilst I’m not aware of any current projects by international relief agencies to build this sort of system I’d like to draw people’s attention to the possibilities.

The DEC are accepting donations for the Haiti earthquake relief fund at the following address.

or the international red-cross appeal here

3 responses to “Using the VCE/vBlock concept to aid disaster relief in situations like the Haiti Earthquake

  1. Scott Lowe January 17, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    If I recall correctly, something like this (but on a much smaller scale, and focused on communications only) was deployed in and around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

    In addition, I think that the major vendors who are pushing “containerized data centers” (like the Sun Blackbox or the HP one) were also mentioning this as a potential use case.

    However, your solution focuses more on the use of the hypervisor and related technologies and could potentially be complementary to both of the solutions listed above.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Pingback: Top 5 Planet V12n blog posts week 02 | VMvisor

  3. Pingback: links for 2010-01-18 | Kabam!

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