DRaaS: Disaster Recovery Technology for Small Business

by Drew Robb

If you lack a small business disaster recovery plan, or if your disaster recovery technology is a disaster waiting to happen, you need to know about DraaS and what it can do for you.

The outlook for small businesses that suffer a disaster of any kind—natural, man-made, or data-related—isn't pretty. According to the Small Business Administration, 25 percent of businesses never reopen after a natural disaster takes them down, and 43 percent close their doors after a catastrophic data loss. If that's not grim enough, 75 percent of businesses that don't have an effective disaster recovery (DR) plan are gone within three years of a disaster.

A big part of the problem is that many small businesses can't afford the IT infrastructure required to safeguard their computers and data. Large companies set up a separate data center. When the main server goes down, they can bring their systems back online rapidly. That way, the organization hardly skips a beat due to the event.

But to do that successfully, a company must maintain all the physical space, hardware, software, power, and cooling that it has in place at headquarters—and that's an expensive business proposition. Further, the organization has to have enough trained IT personnel to run such an operation.

A Disaster Recovery Alternative for Small Business

A company can also rent space and computers from what's called a colocation provider—that costs less but still does not come cheap. However, another increasingly popular option is cloud-based and called Disaster Recovery as a Service, or DRaaS.

"DRaaS is often a good fit for small to midsize businesses that lack the necessary expertise to develop and maintain an effective disaster recovery plan," said Wayne Meriwether, a senior analyst for Computer Economics, an IT research firm in Irvine, Calif.

DRaaS: a disaster recovery tool for small business

Understanding DRaaS for Small Business

Cloud computing forms the basis of DRaaS. Today you'll find many service providers with massive data centers at their disposal that offer SMBs various services for a subscription fee. The best known of these is data backup. You pay a certain amount per month or per year to have your business files backed up every day.

But Lilac Schoenbeck, vice president of product management and marketing at DR service provider Iland, said do not confuse data backup and DR. 

"Knowing that your data is saved somewhere does not mean it can be quickly recovered or that your applications will be up and running in an acceptable timeframe," she said. "True disaster recovery plans minimize downtime so that your business continues to run when something goes wrong—whether it's brought on by human error, cyberattack, local event, or natural disaster."

DRaaS falls into two main categories. Some vendors offer appliance-based DR. The provider places a specialized piece of hardware in your small business' office. The hardware connects to your network and backs up files to that appliance. From there, the device transmits data to the cloud where it can be retrieved if the data is lost.

Barracuda and Acronis are a couple of examples of this approach. The Acronis Disaster Recovery Service uses an on-site appliance that works in tandem with an Acronis cloud data center to recover and restart systems in the event of an outage. It supports Windows or Linux servers and any applications running on them. Features include individual recovery of documents and email messages.

The second category is direct-to-cloud DR services. Proponents of this approach claim that it offers faster data transfer both to and from the cloud. "If you have no appliance, you can eliminate potential bottlenecks and minimize downtime waiting for a replacement appliance in the event of a disaster," said Chris Schin, vice president of products at Zetta.net

Established providers such as SunGard Availability Services and IBM Global Services offer direct-to-cloud DRaaS, though they tend to focus more on larger organizations. Some small businesses might struggle with either the cost structure or the personnel needs that these services require.

As a result, a new wave of lower-cost, easier-to-implement services has emerged including Iland DRaaS, the Seagate Cloud Disaster Recovery Service and Zetta.net's DRaaS, some of which deliver DR protection without requiring an appliance. Pricing for Zetta, for example, starts at around $175 per month.

"Small businesses have the same DR needs as larger enterprises, but they frequently lack their IT resources, which make SMBs a good fit for DRaaS" said Schin.

Part of the allure of direct-to-cloud DR is its speed. One study by Mediatronics found that the time required to upload all SMB data to the cloud via an appliance could be up to 15 times slower than going direct to the cloud. The direct-to-cloud method achieves this by taking out the extra step of sending data via an appliance, and using network optimization techniques that compress data and speeds its transmission to the receipt point in the cloud. 

But as Dave Simpson, an analyst with 451 Research, pointed out, some small businesses prefer an appliance that they can just plug in on site as it contains all the software they need.

DRaaS Implementation Tips

Whichever DRaaS delivery method might interest you, be sure that you understand these important do's and don'ts. Mark Jameson, general manager at Acronis Disaster Recovery recommends that SMBs start with planning, not technology. DR encompasses a wealth of details such as available phone lines, personnel being able to travel to a new location in the event of a disaster, and a thousand other factors including many on the technology side.

A good example is this paper on small business continuity planning (PDF) developed by the City of Westminster, Colo. It gives small businesses an idea of the many facets you need to consider. All of the elements need to be documented, prepared in checklists, and drilled in with personnel.

"Plan your DR well in advance and document it," said Jameson. "DR success is proportional to preparedness."

During Superstorm Sandy, the Making Headway Foundation in New York State found out just how wrong things can go—despite planning. This small business lost power, phone, and Internet for a week. The company's files were safe because it developed proper backup procedures, but its data could not be recovered onsite until power and Internet service were restored. The point is that you really can't plan enough. You have to address various scenarios and have a plan for each one if you hope to stay one step ahead of Mother Nature.

Testing, too, is a vital ingredient. Once you have a plan in place that's supported by adequate technology, stage a mock disaster and see how your personnel and your systems respond. This always reveals serious weaknesses that you need to address.

"Make sure you put the DR solution through its paces upfront," said Schin. "You should also test your DR response at least every six months."

This is important due to a variety of factors such as personnel turnover. The old receptionist may have known your DR plan thoroughly, but the new one may be clueless. You don't want to find that out in the eye of the storm. Additionally, little details may change that can thwart even the finest DR plan. Maybe the person responsible for IT moved two months ago and has a new phone number or address. Efforts to find him or her may be challenged by the new contact information failing to make it into the DR documentation binder.

"You must constantly maintain the DR plan as the application portfolio and other details change," said Meriwether.  

Jameson also recommends employing multiple layers of protection. Always back up files to more than one place. Keep copies on site, as well as at an off-site DR location or cloud. Schin advises making three different copies to keep your options open.

Why? Here's an example from Hurricane Katrina: A small business thought it was safe because it had its backup tapes secured at a DR site on the 12th floor of a building in New Orleans. However, the company could not access that building for many days due to flooding.

Vendor selection also plays an important part. Meriwether said that small business owners must be sure the service provider has the necessary computer resources and storage capabilities to deliver DR data on demand, as well as the capability to start applications in their cloud when needed. In other words, do they have the capability to use their cloud as a temporary work environment until your own systems are back online locally?

Further, you don't want to have to wait all day for a cloud provider to transmit your data back to you, or to find out that service is horrible when you try to run your whole business in a provider's cloud.

"Make sure that the pro­vider can deliver the appropriate quality of service while the application is running in its cloud," said Meriwether.

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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This article was originally published on Monday Aug 10th 2015
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