Small Business Disaster Recovery in the Cloud

Thursday Oct 10th 2013 by Pam Baker
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We look at the right way to use the cloud for disaster recovery and business continuity. It's affordable and easy, even if you've never ventured into the cloud.

There's a broad spectrum when it comes to small business and cloud computing. At one end you'll find SMB owners who run their entire business in the cloud, while the folks at the other end hear "cloud" and go check the weather.

If you fall anywhere other than the very bottom of that spectrum, it's important to understand the proper way to use the cloud for disaster recovery: how to further lower costs, and how to shorten the time it takes to get back to business after a disaster. You have plenty of options; the key is to know which cloud disaster recovery setup is right for your specific business needs.

Defining Disaster Recovery

First, it's important to understand what disaster recovery (DR) really means. Don't make the mistake of thinking that data backups are the same thing as disaster recovery (they're not).  Another common but faulty assumption is that you don't have to do anything special about disaster recovery because all your information is in the cloud. Wrong again.

"SMBs need to realize that disaster recovery is not a synonym for data backups," says Tim Singleton, president of Strive Technology Consulting in Boulder, CO. "A backup is a copy of your data that's been stored somewhere safe. Disaster recovery is a plan for recovering that data, plus all the hardware lost in the disaster, and returning it to a reasonably functional state so that you can do business."

Disaster recovery is actually a subset of an over-arching business continuity plan, something no business should be without. Business continuity (BC) entails everything you need to keep your business running during and after a disaster, whether that disaster is the sudden death of a business partner, a natural disaster, sudden equipment failure, or a manmade disaster such as a terrorist attack or simple human error.

It's all fine and good that your data is in the cloud after disaster strikes, but can you reach it if you have no power, no working equipment, no office, and physically stranded employees?  In business continuity planning, you must consider how employees can continue to work in remote locations and in bad conditions; how you will get new hardware in place in order to have something to download your data too; how quickly you need which data sets back in place in order to function; and other considerations related to resuming your business.

 "Don't confuse DR with business continuity," warns David Van Allen, vice president of Operations at INetU. "It's a business continuity plan that should drive your DR objectives." That said, here's how you can best use the cloud in your DR and BC efforts.

Cloud Backups and Time to Recovery

The cloud is a great place to store backups because it's readily accessible and generally protected from disasters in your local area. However, you need to thoroughly consider Time to Recovery, i.e. how quickly you need that data delivered to you. That turn-around time affects how quickly you can resume business and how much disaster recovery will cost you.

"For example, if your file server crashes with 1 terabyte (TB) of data on it, then you need to transfer 1 TB of data from your backup location to your new server," explains Singleton. "If your backups are all in the cloud, they all need to be downloaded. Most SMB's can't afford anything faster than a 50 Mbps connection to the Internet, and transferring 1 TB of data over a 50 Mbps line takes a minimum of 46 hours."

According to a study by SpiceWorks, and sponsored by Carbonite, 45 percent of SMBs have experienced data loss and, on average, it cost $9,000 to recover the data. You can minimize this cost by having a good DR plan in place before disaster strikes.

"Most SMBs aren't storing petabytes of data, and they need only a reasonable amount of reliability," says Brian Geisel, CEO of Geisel Software. "The [high] cost really comes in around how quickly your data can be recovered. For most situations, you can setup DR that will recover within a couple of hours for less than $1,000."

No matter how you do the math, $1,000 in disaster preparation is a lot cheaper than $9,000 to recover after an event.

Time to Recovery Options

Another thing you can do to minimize costs is to have more than one way to recover your data after a disaster.

"If your company plans to keep all of its backups online, make sure the backup vendor will mail you a hard drive with your backups," says Singleton. "This is often much faster than trying to download it all. A better solution is to keep a copy of backups locally for a fast restore, as well as in the cloud."

However, if you are using the cloud for disaster recovery, then prioritize the data that you need immediately—think financials and CRM. If you opt to speedily download business-critical files, and leisurely download remaining data later, your costs will be much lower, and your recovery much faster, than downloading everything at once.

Disaster Recovery Options

Cloud-based disaster recovery companies provide a wide range of solutions. Jerry Irvine, CIO at Prescient Solutions, shared the options and their definitions:

Cold disaster recovery sites

Cold solutions are typically the most affordable and cost effective. The small business provides the inventory, operating systems (OS) and application and systems requirements for the set of data defined as crucial to recover quickly. The remaining, less urgent data can be recovered afterwards.

On a daily basis, the SMB performs off-site data replication and backup to the cloud provider to maintain up-to-the-minute data sets. In case of disaster, the disaster recovery provider spins up the system, installs the OS applications and restores the data so that the small business can continue its operations within a defined time frame.

You can separate these cold disaster recovery environments based on application, and because of the flexibility of cloud solutions, different providers with specific application expertise can step in. The advantage of this approach is that you (or your IT person) don't have to wrangle with the complexities of reinstating everything personally. Further, time to recovery is often faster when professionals who know the applications best handle the recovery of that application and data for you. 

Hot disaster recovery sites

You need hot solutions for mission-critical applications that can't be down for any extended time period. Traditionally organizations had to buy their own hardware, pay to house and maintain it in an off-premises location, handle all the data replication and related recovery activities themselves. That increased costs significantly.

Thanks to cloud providers, the expense of hot disaster recovery facilities can now be shared by all the occupants who use it instead of just one company paying for the entire thing. That makes hot disaster recovery much more affordable to the average company.

Additionally, hot solutions can provide increased resources in case of excessive systems peaks. This allows companies with seasonal products to tap the extra capacity they need without having to buy more hardware and software to handle peaks in their business—only to find those things sitting unused for the rest of the year.

Three layers of disaster recovery

Keep in mind that you can, and probably should, use more than one provider or technology for your DR plan. Some are cheaper than others; some are faster in getting you back to business. By using more than one, you have options on speed and cost after a disaster that can make all the difference in how well you rebound in the aftermath.

The best backup systems in the industry today combine three technologies into their disaster recovery solutions: a hybrid storage solution, image-based backups, and virtualization.

A hybrid storage solution keeps all the backup data on the local network as well as in the cloud.  Image-based backups take snapshots of the entire server at once, rather than backing up all the individual files.

"Virtualization converts that backup image into a fully functional ‘virtual' server that people can use while the physical server is rebuilt," says Singleton.  Combining these three technologies lets a company get back up and working (if not at optimal speeds) in a matter of minutes than days.

Disasters hit clouds, too

Don't assume that since you use cloud services such as Google, Microsoft Office 365, or Salesforce, that your data is safe where it is.

"As more SMBs store their data in the cloud, executives neglect to consider that services like Salesforce and Google Apps are also at risk of losing important information in the event of user error, service outages and natural disasters," says Rob May, CEO and co-founder of Backupify.

May acknowledges that cloud disaster recovery is an essential tool for preventing on-premises data loss. However, he believes businesses that rely on cloud-based services, such as Google and Salesforce, should also consider a cloud-to-cloud backup as an extra layer of protection.

What to Look for In a Cloud DR Provider

According to Heinan Landa, CEO of Optimal Networks, a solid disaster recovery plan should include "a full data backup of your email, servers, and workstations every night, file restoration, and off-site storage, plus backup verification and notification for added peace of mind."

Specifically, Landa offered this checklist of features to look for in a cloud DR provider:

  • Full Backup. It should back up your files, your desktops, your laptops, and your servers.
  • Data Restoration. Does it easily restore data and files from a user dashboard?
  • Daily Backup. A comprehensive, automatic backup of your systems should happen every night- with no questions for users to answer and no tapes.
  • Off-site Storage. It should store your data at two separate, highly-secure data centers. Even if you want to keep your current backup solution, this feature provides you with an off-site disaster recovery option.
  • Data Retention. Default is 60 days, but you can customize it to your business needs. Efficient, block-level backup technology minimizes your retention costs.
  • Tapeless Solution. You save money by not having to pay for 21 tapes each year, buy a new tape drive every two years, pay for off-site tape storage, or invest in upgrades for your tape backup software.
  • Backup Verification. Insist on email verification on which backups have been performed and when. In addition, you should receive access to a dashboard from which you can track the backups yourself.

Pam Baker has written for numerous leading publications including, Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, the NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers.

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