Why mailbox.org operates two data centers

As reported earlier on dna.fr, a fire in Strasbourg has devastated a main data center of the French cloud operator OVH. Locations SBG-1 and SBG-2 have been largely destroyed, and SBG-3 and SBG-4 had to be taken offline temporarily. Customers, which include the French government and the Centre Pompidou, were advised by OVH to engage „Disaster Recovery Plans“, which can only mean that all servers were destroyed and the data stored on them irretrievably lost.

Looking at the images that were taken at the scene of the fire, one can see completely burned-out multi-story buildings. Anyone affected by such an event can be lucky if they have a disaster recovery plan, and additional copies of their data kept elsewhere. Sadly, those who rented their servers in Strasbourg and maintained no further backups will in all likelihood have lost all their data forever.

Unlike other providers, we at mailbox.org do not rent root servers externally with commercial companies such as OVH. Instead, we are operating two independent and geographically separate data centers with two providers: IPB (Internet Provider Berlin) and Lumen (formerly known as Level 3). Both data centers are structurally similar, and we use our own dedicated data lines, which allow mailbox.org to operate services independently even in case of disruption elsewhere.

Biometric access control, multiple physical levels of redundant power supply from different energy providers, cooling systems, and the continuous monitoring of system status are international standards that are implemented in our data centers. In addition, uninterruptible power supply is provided through batteries, as well as emergency generators on standby to respond in the event that the electricity grid fails. Furthermore, there are automatic fire-extinguishing systems installed, which use CO2 or argon gas and can quickly suppress any fire flaring up. Given these measures are well-established, it is surprising how it was possible for the fire in Strasbourg to get out of control so dramatically. Some experts have said that French fire protection standards may be insufficient and so, less strict than those we have in Germany, for example. Even the fire fighters on location to extinguish the flames were surprised by the scale of the fire.

If different parts of a house are allocated to special fire protection zones, this won't necessarily help in the catastrophic event that the entire building is on fire. The only way to counter this kind of risk is to maintain redundant data centers at geographically separate locations, despite the significant additional expense that doing so incurs. Since this is normally a choice that remains opaque to customers, everyone would be well-advised to ask how their current provider is keeping their data safe.

On this subject, mailbox.org CEO Peer Heinlein says: „Looking at the events in Strasbourg, we are reaffirmed in our approach not to rent servers elsewhere but operate our own dedicated systems instead. Sure, it is more expensive to do so and a lot of effort overall. However, keeping server systems and data in two separate locations also offers a lot of security and flexibility in the event of catastrophe. Even if one of our data centers were to fail completely, then this would only cause minor disruption to our service, which makes the situation as a whole much more controllable.”, says Heinlein.

Author: Markus Feilner