How Database Failure Left Harry Potter and Thousands of Travelers Stranded Outside the US

By: Morpheus Data

Daniel Radcliffe


Daniel Radcliffe. Photograph: Perou/Guardian

TL;DR As the US State Department coped with massive database failure, thousands of travelers (and one Harry Potter star) were prevented entry to the United States. Even once the database was brought back online, it only worked in a limited capacity, resulting in extensive backlogs that added days, if not a full week, to wait time for visas and passports. Former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park wants government IT to move in the direction of open source, cloud-based computing. If you aren’t using SSD-backed cloud database infrastructure, it’s time to catch up.

The U.S. government might be able to afford the database downtime that most IT professionals price at $20,000 per hour minimum (some put that number in the hundreds of thousands), but chances are, most businesses are not equipped to suffer the consequences of database failure.

After the massive freak show that was the first iteration of, U.S. Chief Technology Officer (until a few days ago) Todd Park told Wired’s Steven Levy that he’d like to move government IT into the future with the rest of us, employing cloud-based, open source, rapid-iteration computing. He’s approached Silicon Valley tech gurus, imploring them to step in and champion for change. And he’s not shy about how dire the situation is: “America needs you! Not a year from now! But right. The. Fuck. Now!”

But that sort of modernization definitely hadn’t happened in Washington by mid-July, when State Department operations worldwide ground to a near standstill after the Consolidated Consular Database (CCD) crashed before their eyes.

As a result, an untold number of travelers were stuck waiting at embassies for authorizations that took, on average, a week longer to deliver than usual. Students, parents adopting new babies abroad, and vacationers alike found themselves trapped across the world from their destinations, all due to a system backup failure.

Database Crash Destroyed State Department Productivity

So what happened here? According to the DOS, an Oracle software upgrade “interfered with the smooth interoperability of redundant nodes.” On July 20, the Department began experiencing problems with the CCD, creating an ever-growing backlog of visa applications. While the applications were not lost, the crash rendered the CCD mostly unusable for at least a week.

Included in the backlog were only applications for non-immigrant visas. While the DOS would not confirm how many travelers were affected by the outage, State Department metrics show that 9 million non-immigrant visas were issued in 2012. Records are not yet available for more recent years, but United Press International reports that DOS issues 370,000 visas weekly and was operating at less than 50 percent productivity with a minimally functional system throughout the second half of July.

Worldwide Nonimmigrant Visa Issuances

Nearly 9 million non-immigrant visas issued in 2012 alone. Backlogs due to database failure can be crippling. Credit: US Department of State

DOS’s Crashed Database Trapped Harry Potter, US Citizens, and Visitors Abroad

Daniel Radcliffe, forever known for his title role in the eight Harry Potter films, was among many people who faced impeded travel after the CCD failure. En route to Comic-Con in San Diego after a brief trip to Toronto for a premiere, even Radcliffe had to wait at the border due to delays in processing his new visa.

But while Radcliffe got an emergency pass, many less famous travelers weren’t so lucky. Several dozen families were living in a Guangzhou, China hotel after being unable to obtain visas for their newly adopted children. One Maryland family of seven was stuck for days, and they weren’t alone. The Washington Post reported that at least 30 other families were waiting, too, unable to return home as the DOS coped with the tech glitch.

Chinese students headed to the States for university studies were also delayed, alongside non-citizen Ireland residents traveling to the US for vacations. The US State Department’s Facebook page shows posts as late as August 22 asking for advice regarding delays in passport issuance.

Businesses Can’t Afford to Rely on Archaic Database Solutions

The Department of State posted an FAQ on August 4 in which they claimed that while they had made “significant progress,” they were still working to return the Consular Consolidated Database, brought back online July 23 only partially functional, back to “full operational capacity.” They still didn’t know the precise cause of the breakdown. The State Department hasn’t issued any statements since the August 4 update.

Needless to say, this debacle has caused a massive headache for the government and for travelers alike. But downtime causes headaches for companies in every industry. An International Data Corporation study reports that 98% of US and 96% of UK companies have to perform file recovery at least once per week. With downtime costing at least $20K per hour for both groups, and often considerably more, it’s imperative that businesses use database solutions that promise quick recovery. 

Average Cost of unplanned data center

Downtime Costs in More Ways than One Credit: Emerson Network Power

Morpheus Backs Up Automatically and Is Lightning Fast

Clearly, few businesses can withstand the downtime from which the State Department continues to recover. You need your database to work quickly and reliably. Morpheus cloud database-as-a-service offers auto backups, replication, and archiving. Since it operates via online console, you’ll never have to worry about losing access to your systems and data. Its SSD-backed infrastructure increases IOPs by over 100 times, making it reliably fast. Direct connection to EC2 vastly reduces latency.

Todd Park wouldn’t want to move government IT to the cloud if he didn’t trust the security. Morpheus is secured by VPN and is safe from interference from the public internet. The Morpheus platform is continually monitored and managed by the sharply dedicated and experienced team at Morpheus, as well as sophisticated robots made for the job. You can also monitor in real time the queries that could potentially bog down your app performance. Support is available 24 hours a day.

Morpheus works with Elasticsearch, MongoDB, MySQL, and Redis. While Morpheus is in beta, you can try it at no cost. Prices after beta and supported platforms are listed on the Morpheus web site.