Your business will always be more vulnerable than you think. Keeping it going means making sure it can survive a disaster. And doing that means more than just backing up data.
Business continuity is an ambiguous term. Its definitions differ from one vendor to the next. But essentially it is about keeping your business up – and that includes everything from the seat you sit on to your e-mail archives. Every component of the business must be identified, analysed, scrutinised and prioritised. When the you-know-what hits the fan, how will your business survive?
Every IT manager fears disks failing and corrupted databases – but those threats pale in comparison to fires and major natural disasters. Your business could lose not only its data, but also its premises, furniture, processes and, god forbid, people. It is something we do not like thinking about, but should address nonetheless.
Obviously data is important and must be backed up. Of course it must be easy to restore. Doing so, however, is easier said than done, especially given the ever-growing amount of data accumulated by companies on a daily basis. Backing it up means moving it somewhere. And we all have virtual tons of the stuff cluttering up hard drives. Statistics show that most of it is unstructured too.
Brains versus brawn
John Aisien, VP of Product Management, Oracle Fusion Middleware says that there are two ways of taking care of the problem of dealing with massive amounts of data that need to be moved around.
“There is the Einstein approach and the Schwarzenegger approach – age old brain versus brawn,” he says. “The brainy solution is to use a clever software approach and other innovative ways of taking care of the problem. The brawn approach is to answer the challenge with powerful hardware and use brute force to move data around. This includes putting in more pipes.”
It is not to say that one approach is better, or cheaper, than the other. But what if you could put Einstein’s brain in Schwarzenegger’s body? According to Aisien, this is the approach Oracle is taking with its partner HP. Together the two vendors have a new storage product range they want you to throw money at.
“The answer is to ship less data between disks and servers, add more pipes and make existing pipes bigger,” he continues. “And that is why HP and Oracle have launched the Exadata Storage server. Oracle is now in the systems business. Oracle provides clever software that ensures that a minimum amount of data is moving through the pipes. If you can do that, then you can offload servers. But with HP’s leading hardware we are also ensuring that there are more pipes and massively parallel grids. Bandwidth scales with capacity.”
Petrus Human, technical director for Attix5, a company that focuses on continuity, agrees with the brainy approach of being clever about what data you move around.
“We find most backup companies looking at reduplication or single instance storage for cutting down amounts of data. We also find that a lot of organisations still do full daily or weekly backups. This leads to numerous copies of the same data residing on storage devices.”
Attix5 believes that data selection is a far more intelligent approach to the problem.
“For example, some insist on backing up entire systems, including the operating system,” says Human. “This is a waste of time and storage. The operating system is also usually the reason for a crash happening in the first place. You really do not want to restore a corrupted OS.
“A better way of tackling the problem is to identify and define critical data and only back that up. Do one full backup of it, and then only backup incremental changes going forward. With the right technology it will still be possible to roll back to any particular date’s backup set. With this approach we find that businesses only need to transfer between 0,25 and 5% of their backup selection in daily runs. It is then possible to easily transfer backup data even with ADSL lines in South Africa where the standard upload speed is 384 kilobits per second.”
Human says that a combination of onsite and offsite storage should be combined to ensure that backups can be restored in no time, and that data is safe even in the case of fire or theft.
“It is also important to note that lots of companies have critical data on laptops and removable devices. Up to 80% of corporate data goes home at night. So this also needs to be covered by being transferred onto a shared medium that gets backed up nightly,” he adds.
The big picture
Having your data backed up is one thing, but it is useless without hardware to use it on. This is a source of vexation for many businesses. Having a backup site on standby makes good sense, especially if your business relies on a call centre, for example – but it seems wasteful to maintain an entire site that may or may not ever be used.
Another approach is to identify the critical hardware and processes in the business and make sure that backup equipment is available that enables the core to keep running while the less important aspects are restored. Or one could learn to share.
“Having a set of duplicate hardware at a business continuity outsourcer or second building is an option, but it is expensive and only appropriate if you come to the conclusion that you can only be down for a few minutes or an hour or two,” says Allen Smith, CEO of ContinuitySA. “Most businesses like to think that they can only afford small downtimes, but are exaggerating. The truth is that if you suffer a major fire for example, and your premises burns down, most people would consider restoring it in a few days to be a good job.
“So a more cost effective approach is to make use of a shared or syndicated service,” he explains. “Servers are available offsite and you subscribe to equipment required for recovery. You could be one of 10 people subscribing to a system, and because the risk of multiple disasters is highly unlikely there is almost no chance of availability problems. In the case of disaster you then move to this shared equipment while procuring new hardware for the business.”
He adds that it is also important to test restorability. Many businesses assume that they are in the green because they have a plan, but have never tested their ability to recover from failure or disaster. This nature of test should be conducted regularly enough to ensure that the business has what it takes to weather a storm.
Smith also suggests that having a good backup strategy in place means making sure that business processes are streamlined and that the business is efficient and agile. While these qualities will ensure that the organisation can recover from disaster, it has other positive effects too – including increased profitability.
IBM is known for its continuity solutions that can literally respond to government-sized disasters, with satellite links and tricked-out vans full of hardware that will park onsite and plug into the enterprise. However, while IBM can get you gear in an emergency, and then some, the company also suggests you consider the role of your staff in a crises.
“While it is important to build resiliency into your business operations, it is just as important to build resiliency into your human capital,” says William LaFontaine, GM, IBM Global Technology Services for Sub-Saharan Africa.
“Organisations that can build resiliency into their human capital are more likely to protect their most valuable resources and maintain continuous operations in the event of a disruption,” he says. “Many forward-thinking companies are already considering the impact of short-term interruptions on normal business activities and identifying appropriate actions to sustain vital business processes.”
“However, there are few human resource disaster recovery plans comprehensive enough to meet the needs of employees and the business in a time of crisis,” warns LaFontaine. “In a crisis, many organisations will be challenged to safeguard and support employees while continuing to deliver the services needed to keep the business operational.”
“Remember, it is rarely business as usual after a disruption. The effort your organisation makes now to protect your human capital resiliency in the event of a crisis will go a long way in helping it, and your people, recover after the worst is over.”
Ensuring continuity means backing up data, having standby equipment available, whether it is currently owned by the business or not, and being able to get your business processes back up and running as soon as possible in the case of a disaster. But some things really don’t need to be covered, and there may be others that you will later be pleased to have lost – like out-dated systems and defunct processes. Get your business in good shape and it will not only be more resilient to curveballs, but also more profitable.