Axxana founder Alex Winokur applies the laws of thermodynamics to ensure that our crucial data can weather disasters.
By MEREDITH PRICE LEVITT
At one time or another, we've all considered the worst-case scenarios. What happens to my money if the bank's data are compromised by a flash flood or an earthquake? Where do my medical records go if there's a fire in the building or a massive terrorist attack? Do companies store these records safely in another location?
The answer is yes. Most of the time.
Although data storage, replication and protection is critical to most companies in today's global, digitally obsessed world, not all of them have solutions for every scenario. Two systems are prevalent today, but they are both flawed. With asynchronous mirroring, data are periodically transferred to a remote site up to thousands of miles away from the disaster. Here's the caveat: With this system, whatever data have not yet been transferred at the time of the disaster will be lost. Synchronous mirroring transmits the data simultaneously without any losses but the process is expensive, the application performance can be affected by unforeseen incidents and the transfer distance is limited to about 70 kilometers - which in some cases isn't far enough to avoid the disaster.
So what's the solution?
According to Dr. Alex Winokur, the CTO of Israeli start-up Axxana and an IBM "master inventor," the answer lies in an innovative fusion of software engineering, thermodynamics, electronics and mechanics known as enterprise data recording (EDR) technology. With a PhD in computer science, a strong background in systems engineering and data storage protection and experience in intelligence systems as a science officer in the IDF, Winokur conglomerated knowledge from a wide variety of different fields to create an ingenious solution to the existing problems in data storage and recovery.
Founded in 2005, Axxana comes from the Hebrew word for "storage." After conducting market research to flesh out potential clients and understand what companies are lacking, it raised $5 million from Gemini Israel Funds in 2007 and installed its first product at the beginning of this year. Although it has been a long process, the idea first came to Winokur much earlier.
"After 9/11, I asked myself why no one was taking advantage of the black box technology that aviation uses to protect data through a crash and applying it to data protection for other sectors," he says. "It was an obvious need."
Therein lies the major innovation: Instead of having to solve a complicated and expensive problem of how to remove data before a disaster, Axxana decided to ensure that the data can survive right where it is.
Appropriately dubbed the "Phoenix" for its ability to rise from the ashes, the new product is a 180-kg. "black box" designed to protect critical data from natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Embedded with flash memory, the box can survive earthquakes, 10 meters of water, fires reaching 920 degrees Centigrade, and 2,260 kg. of pressure.
In addition to its robust ability to withstand just about everything except a nuclear explosion, the Phoenix bridges the gap between synchronous and asynchronous mirroring by wirelessly transmitting data after a disaster occurs thanks to a cellular modem, batteries and antennas - even in cases when the black box cannot be physically accessed.
Essentially, the Phoenix technology provides cost-effective synchronous mirroring at any distance. After using flash technology that doesn't have any moving parts to ensure the data would not be destroyed by severe impacts, Winokur says the second largest challenge was to decide how to make the black box useful as it's not feasible to store large amounts of data in the Phoenix.
"Not all of the data need to be stored on the box," he says. "Only the data that have not yet reached the remote location need to be there."
On the surface it sounds appealing, but the company is still facing challenges. After all, if a disaster occurs and the Phoenix fails to protect critical data, it's too late to repair the potential damage.
To combat doubt regarding the durability of this black box, validation tests were conducted all over the world - from ovens in Belgium to crash tests in Israel. "You can see the ovens we put the Phoenix in on our YouTube video," says Winokur, encouraging me to have a look at the extensive certification processes that the company has rigorously performed.
Nevertheless, as Winokur admits, there are never any foolproof solutions that provide 100 percent protection. In one example, he cites companies with generators in cases of power failures. What they didn't consider was the lack of water being pumped. "They had power but no water to cool their systems, so it was an unforeseen problem. We're not fooling ourselves. We know that you can never promise 100% protection. There simply is no such thing."
Nevertheless, Winokur points out that the overall chances of recovering the data are much higher with Axxana than without it.
And despite the potential risks of storing data on a black box and the possibilities of unknown scenarios that usually accompany disasters, more and more companies are being required by the US Securities and Exchange Commission to protect their data in remote locations and Axxana's solution provides a less expensive and innovative way to solve their problem. "We have a long list of clients waiting for our product," says Winokur. He notes the potential benefits for financial institutions, health care companies, insurance companies and even on-line vendors like Amazon.com, which could face bankruptcy if their current on-line orders were lost or damaged.
"We installed our first product for a respectable Israeli company the last week of January," says Winokur. "But we're moving slowly and carefully with test runs until we're certain that all the kinks have been worked out and we're ready."
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