The science fiction genre was ahead of the curve in describing the concept of virtual reality. In books, movies, and television, tales of virtual worlds accessed through technology were creations of wonder. Visionaries like Walt Disney, or at least his company, created the 1982 movie Tron; the story of a computer programmer, whose work was stolen by the greedy corporation he was released from, was sucked into the game he developed, and had to fight his way out. Virtual disaster recovery, however, is not about escaping from a computer simulation; rather it’s using virtualization tools to ensure a rapid, smooth recovery from any type of issue on the data loss spectrum from a single instance of corruption to a full organizational-wide infrastructure failure. It’s a documented fact that 50% of small or mid-sized business that experience a catastrophic data loss will fail within two years. So a defined disaster recovery (DR) plan is an essential component of any business plan regardless of organizational size, and the key steps for creating a successful strategy is to identify all possible risks, map out the plan, and craft a solution.
When thinking about a disaster recovery strategy, every potential risk must be identified including those that are unlikely statically. Granted, it’s an extremely uncomfortable exercise, and no one wants to dwell on the possibility of negative outcomes when thinking about their business. Motivational gurus like Tony Robbins preach positive visualization, but forging through a “what-if” exercise provides a solid foundation and an actual executable plan if and when situations arise. For example, an organization may not be located in a geographic area that’s prone to hurricanes, but a flood can easily occur anywhere as seen repeatedly throughout 2011 in the Philadelphia area. Identifying all the ways business can be disrupted, and being prepared with a plan for any circumstance, is not only wise but necessary.
Once the risks have been identified, some additional questions need to be considered. First and foremost, is there documentation in place including detailed steps to recover from any event that may occur on the disaster spectrum? Secondly, what is the maximum tolerable time needed to make a full recovery as to not severely impact the business’s stability? Old DR solutions relying on tape backups typically took anywhere from 48 to 72 hours to restore and did not always deliver a complete backup. However, in today’s economy of immediacy, a three day recovery is beyond the tolerable acceptance and pretty much debilitating. Organizations must ensure recovery times meet individual tolerances, and the technologies used in conjunction with the DR plan support those thresholds. Third, how long would it take to get staff back to work? There may be resistance from some staff members who have family or personal obligations aside from work that arise during a disaster.
Deciding on the technologies and methodologies to implement is central as is every other step in creating the disaster recovery plan. While we are all trying to make our organizations more mobile and flexible, DR plans have to fall in step as well. The enterprise space migrated to “real-time” DR solutions such as electronic offsite backups and virtualized environments, and the ease of virtualization allowed them to condense server instances by up to 80% while optimizing memory and CPU utilization of the remaining hardware. Internet-based backups finally eclipsed the tedious space-hogging tape arrays adding near real-time recovery as needed. A great example of the recovery difference between today’s technology and legacy tape backup solutions is illustrated in the following. You’re working on a critical document all day, and at 3:30 you get the blue screen of death. In the old tape days, where backups were taken nightly at best, all of that work from earlier in the day would be lost because you didn’t save your work frequently as you went. With electronic backup appliances that can be both on-site, offsite, and replicating to a third cloud location, this document would be recovered within minutes of the blue screen and with minimal loss. Imagine that for your critical financial, inventory, or sales data!
As with everything else, these enterprise technologies have found their way into the SMB space to much rejoicing. According to an article written by Dave Raffo, Senior News Director at SearchDisasterRecovery.com, “Improving disaster recovery (DR) and business continuity (BC) planning is the top spending priority for small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) and the No. 2 priority for enterprises, according to a recent survey of IT decision-makers conducted by Forrester Research.” (Raffo, 2010) Raffo goes on to say, “More than 70% of the 1,228 SMB budget decision makers in the Forrester’s ‘Global IT budgets, priorities, and emerging technology tracking survey Q2 2010’ said upgrading disaster recovery and business continuity capabilities is likely to be a top technology priority over the next 12 months.” (Raffo, 2010)
Now we turn to the concept of virtual disaster recovery, which is simply a blend of the efficiencies and economies of scale virtualization along with the stability, rapid transmission, and storage of electronic backup data. For smaller organizations, the hardest thing to recover from is a simple server crash. With Microsoft’s Small Business Server combining mail server, file/print server, domain controller (DC), and sometimes applications like SQL, a simple hardware failure can be completely debilitating. Anyone who has tried to recover a downed DC knows it can be a frustrating and time-consuming process. A better option would be a virtual domain controller which is essentially a virtual machine acting as a “cold” (not running) DC. It’s sitting waiting in a remote hosted facility and ready to fire up when needed. This is a great standalone DR solution for an SMB as it enables the reestablishment of a main server in minutes rather than hours or even days.
The decline in upfront costs for memory and storage space has fueled an opportunity for SMB organizations to get enterprise-class technologies in place. With virtualization, each server becomes a virtual machine (VM) on a server platform, and each VM appears to the network to be a physical server with a processor, RAM, and storage. However, in reality, it’s a software implementation residing in memory. Thus, it’s easier to take a “snapshot” of these VMs and replicate to another appliance onsite or over a secure connection to an offsite DR appliance or cloud-based solution. Since it is being done in real time, these VMs are near real-time. The solution is fairly vendor agnostic and can be at the behest of what your comfort zone deems in your best interest when picking a technology.
So, we have the environment virtualized and VMs going to an on-premise device as well as to an offsite DR facility. What about your data? The answer is simple. There are a boatload of options for near-real time backup of data from familiar vendors like Barracuda Networks, SonicWALL, EMC, Cisco Systems, Dell and many others with disk-based solutions. Best practices should be considered for this section of the project. Determine data that must be restored first and archived to assure no interruptions. A virtual tape library can be beneficial here as well, and making the data backup in a virtual environment can be as easy as installing an agent on the virtual hard disk of a VM. The data can still be archived offsite or even to tape if you so choose.
A good virtual disaster recovery solution will take time and effort to plan. And burying your head in the sand could be akin to playing Russian roulette with your future. There won’t be a solution to pull you out of trouble if you don’t take the time to consider all the scenarios your business could face. What was once science fiction is now almost everyday normalcy, and while we cannot gaze into the future, insight and forethought can keep you grounded in this reality and viable for the future as far down the road as you can see.
Raffo, D. (2010, September 9). Disaster recovery/business continuity planning top spending priority, according to Forrester. Retrieved May 1, 2012, from SearchDisasterRecovery.com: http://searchdisasterrecovery.techtarget.com/news/1519869/Disaster-recovery-business-continuity-planning-top-spending-priority-according-to-Forrester