How to Avoid a Single Point of Failure: Key Mitigation Techniques

How to Avoid a Single Point of Failure: Key Mitigation Techniques

Each part of your IT system forms an interconnected net. The overall strength of the net relies on the strength of individual components. What would happen if some parts of the net started fraying? The system would weaken and fail.

This is the idea behind a single point of failure (SPoF) – these are thin areas of the net that are prone to break easily at the first sign of strain. Reducing SPoF can strengthen your systems and build resilience, but where are they and how can you resolve them?

What is a Single Point of Failure?

A single point of failure refers to the vulnerability of a particular element in a system. When there is a single point of failure, the breakdown of that element will lead to the failure of the rest of the system. In the book Tubes, by Andrew Blum, he references the geography of the internet, and starts by talking about a common cause of single point of failure: how a squirrel nibbling on wires could take down internet access to his own house. This example relates to your processes, components, and systems that have these single points of failure and can completely incapacitate your business.

Types of Single Points of Failure

Some of the most common single points of failure when it comes to technology and data centers are hardware failures, software failures, power outages, network connectivity, and human error.

When businesses don’t have redundancies in hardware, backups to handle power outages or data breaches, additional network switches, or fail safes in place if a team member deletes critical files, your business may be severely impeded or prevented from operating due to a single point of failure.

What Can Cause a Single Point of Failure?

Both internal and external issues can contribute to single points of failure (SPoF), such as design flaws, implementation issues, and outside disruptions and breaches. Systems with design flaws may lack redundancy in key components, including servers, backup systems, and internet connections. Highly intricate systems can also obscure SPoF, making them harder to untangle and remedy quickly.

Even when businesses have redundant components, misconfigured redundancies will do nothing to solve a SPoF. Accidental damage to hardware or missing important configuration steps in software can make these redundancies useless. Finally, external factors can be the biggest threat to existing single points of failure. Natural disasters, cyberattacks, fires, construction work, and power outages can damage equipment and take down critical components. These outside forces often test more than one type of redundancy at the same time.

How to Identify Single Points of Failure

Before you can address a single point of failure, you need to identify where they’re showing up in your business. You can do this by conducting either a failure mode and effect analysis (FMEA) or a systems analysis.

Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (FMEA)

A failure mode looks at how something can fail in a system – what are the ways this particular element could break down? For example, a wire could lose connection, a bulb could break, a fan could stop spinning, and hardware could overheat. A failure mode and effect analysis (FMEA) takes stock of all components in a system, lists all potential failure modes of these components, anticipates the effects of failure, assigns a risk level to each type of failure, and outlines mitigation strategies to decrease the potential risk from occurring and/or the impact it could have on the business.

Systems Analysis

A systems analysis, while similar, tends to take a wider-lens approach to the system to see weaknesses and blocks in flow that could spell greater system breakdown if stressed or impacted. Compiling information for a systems analysis can include taking note of past failures and their root causes, simulating different scenarios and the failures they might bring, and creating a chart of the system’s current workflow to visualize bottlenecks.

What is the Impact of SPoF on Business?

A single point of failure can have a cascading effect on an organization. One small malfunction can easily disrupt entire systems or processes. Depending on the SPoF, businesses may experience irreversible data loss, productivity standstills, customer dissatisfaction, and even permanent reputational damage. Disruption and impediments can remain long after the threat stemming from the SPoF has subsided. The recent United Healthcare / Change Healthcare hack is currently being attributed to a single point of failure – a vulnerability in billing and payment operations used by the organizations. This comes after urging from the International Underwriting Association (IUA) to understand and solve single points of failure in digital supply chains last October. Key connection points between different vendors and services can cause extensive damage, as we’ve seen from the UHC / Change hack.

Techniques to Avoid Single Points of Failure

To build resilient systems, businesses should employ one or all of the following techniques to avoid single points of failure.

Redundancy and Failover Mechanisms

Redundancy is at the core of solving all SPoF vulnerabilities. All critical components of your systems should be accompanied by backups. This goes for hardware, software, data, power supplies, cooling systems, and cables. Your systems should also have failover mechanisms that automatically switch to alternative components if the primary ones fail.

Resilience in System Design and Operations

You can build resilience through simplification and reliability. By simplifying your system design, you reduce the dependencies and hidden points of failure. Reliable components with proven track records can reduce the need for backup components. Build in robust error handling that provides a safety net that captures errors and provides helpful language around what exactly is going wrong.

Recovery Procedures

When you’re in recovery mode, there should be no question about the order of operations. Create clear, well-documented procedures and regularly test your process to ensure you can recover in the time you want (RTO) and without unacceptable data loss (RPO).

Geographic Diversity and Data Centers

If your business can’t go down during a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, hurricane or fire, geographic diversity is a necessity. Ensure your business has a backup environment in a geographically distinct area to decrease the risks associated with larger areas of impact.

Monitoring and Alerting

Oftentimes, you can turn the tide on small issues before they balloon into bigger failures. Implement monitoring and alerting systems to flag problems before they escalate into company-wide disruptions.

Automation and Orchestration

Automated alert systems can flag problems for IT teams, who can jump into action and apply any manual changes. Failover, provisioning, and recovery tasks can all be automated to reduce the time it takes to implement them, as well as the likelihood of human error.

Regular System Audits and Risk Assessments

An initial risk assessment is important, because it helps you plan for threats paired with potential vulnerabilities. However, the risk landscape will change with evolving threats and the nature of your systems. Regularly perform system audits and risk assessments to confirm that your redundancy measures are still preventing SPoF.

Disaster Recovery Planning and Testing

While geographic diversity is one part of disaster recovery planning, there are other things businesses should do to instill confidence in their ability to restore critical systems after an outage. A disaster recovery plan should outline which parts of the system need to be recovered first, who needs to be notified post-disaster, and which steps should happen automatically versus manually. At the very least, businesses should be testing their disaster recovery plans once per year.

Developing a Multi-Pronged Approach to Mitigating Single Points of Failure

Mitigating single points of failure may seem like a simple fix at first – just build redundancies! However, redundancies can take so many different forms in a business, and they won’t work properly without regular monitoring and testing.

Creating and abiding by a multi-pronged approach is a great way to mitigate SPoF, ensure high availability, and build more confidence in your systems. If you’re just getting started with business continuity plans and you’re looking for outside guidance, learn more about TierPoint’s Business Continuity Consulting services, and read our eBook to discover how to master your disaster recovery strategy.


What is a Single Point of Failure Pattern?

A single point of failure pattern is a design flaw that can cause a system-wide outage from a single component failing.

What is an Example of a Single Point of Failure?

A power outage taking out the only server for a business is an example of a single point of failure.

How Do You Stop a Single Point of Failure?

By designing redundancy into your system, your business can mitigate and stop single points of failure.

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