Another Face In The Cloud

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Information technology plays a critical role in the success of many organizations. Software, applications and electronic data are vital to how companies operate, and when they aren’t available due to a disaster or outage, business is slowed or stopped altogether. In the short term, outages result in data loss, employee and customer frustration and lost revenue. The long-term penalties of an outage can affect a business for a lifetime. Lost records, transactions and accounting files can even put a business at risk of violating regulatory statutes.

The discipline of business continuity is focused on ensuring that organizations are protected against these disasters, whether they are large events including fire or flooding, or smaller IT problems such as lost data or a broken server. Proper protection involves moving copies of the business’ data off-site. However, data backup is only part of the equation—if you can’t recover the data, the backup will not help.

Currently, almost all backup processes are based on using tape media, or disk-to-disk replication. If a server or a hard disk fails, the recovery would start from the last backup. With tape, you’ll be looking at lost time and productivity for end-users will be affected. With disk-to-disk backup, the recovery process will be much faster, but the cost is also higher than tape due to the requirements for additional servers and storage hardware, as well as the cost for provisioning and maintaining a second site environment.

No capital investment
Cloud computing can help solve this problem. Instead of investing in additional tapes or hardware to provide recovery, organizations can back up their data to a cloud provider. The cost for this approach is a monthly fee based on how much storage you require, so your company should only pay for what it’s actually consuming. The cloud service is offered without any investment in hardware by the customer, as this set of resources is shared across all the organizations that are sharing the service.

This breaks down into two offerings: Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), where users get access to raw storage and IT resources from the partner and are responsible for what they do with them, and Software as a Service (SaaS), which includes the applications and set-up as part of the overall package.

Cloud storage has the ability to protect critical data faster and with greater flexibility as compared to tape. It’s also cheaper than disk-to-disk methods. The question is, will this really prove to be a viable option for most organizations?

Understanding recovery
To properly evaluate the quality of your data protection capabilities, you must take a look at the recovery time objective (RTO) and recovery point objective (RPO). These metrics define how long you think it will take you to get back online and how current the data must be structured.

Every business will have different RTO and RPO goals. If an organization has a four-hour RTO, then the business can tolerate four hours of downtime between the point of failure and recovery. Similarly, for a four-hour RPO, only four hours of data will need to be recreated. Taken together, this is about eight hours of lost productivity—equivalent to a full business day.

For more serious problems, this is an ambitious goal for a tape or disk-to-disk backup system to meet on its own. The following is a quick list of conditions that can easily push recovery times into days or weeks:

  • Equipment failure requiring a replacement
  • Extended or recurring power outage
  • Air-conditioning failure
  • Fire
  • Flood
  • Physical damage to the building

High availability
To ensure a faster recovery, you would need replacement equipment standing by at an offsite location with the necessary software and configuration to quickly transfer users and data. Disk-to-disk replication software can be used to keep the backup systems constantly updated, but this approach includes a remote data center with servers, storage, networking equipment and Internet access.

High availability (HA) is deployed in environments that must remain online. The mandate for HA is usually driven by quantitative business factures, such as the potential for lost revenue or some other type of risk. Unlike cloud-based disaster recovery (DR), HA gives you complete control of the recovery environment and no one else shares it with you. That said, what keeps HA from being universally accepted as the de facto fallback strategy for IT is the need for additional infrastructure.

When cloud recovery makes sense
For organizations looking at the cloud for DR, there are several areas where it makes real sense. For smaller companies, where the cost of acquisition makes full-scale continuity or DR solutions too expensive to pursue, then a cloud-based approach can fill this gap in an affordable way. Interestingly, larger organizations can complement their existing continuity strategy and expand the number of machines that are protected with a cloud-based recovery strategy.

A cloud-based DR strategy can also overcome the issue with downtime experienced during the recovery phase. If you’re putting full server instances into the cloud, then you can run those workloads on the cloud server if a disaster affects the main production site. This is the main difference between online storage being used for DR and a full use of the cloud for recovery of workloads. Instead of waiting for a physical copy of the data to be delivered, or for a full download to be completed, the workload image can take advantage of the full set of resources the cloud offers.

This does require certain resources from the cloud provider, such as the ability to handle larger boot volumes, but it gets around the problem of lost time while any data is recovered. This option to work with an up-to-date copy of data and applications reduces the potential window of downtime by shrinking the RTO for users to get back online and be productive.

Ignore the thunder
Like any new technology that hasn’t been fully vetted, there is a lot of hype around cloud. Many managed service providers and hosting companies are touting their solutions as cloud computing platforms that also offer disaster recovery or online backup. This confusion in the market makes individuals wary of investing in cloud, so the best approach is to stick to DR best practices and research how cloud computing can support your recovery point and recovery time objectives in particular. With this in mind, it helps to ask a few key questions:

  1. Can the cloud offering protect all of my servers and applications?
  2. Can it protect the operating system and applications, as well as the data?
  3. Does it provide a mechanism to recover the data/servers without lots of downtime?
  4. Can I actually failover to the cloud and stay up and running?
  5. Can I test the failover process to ensure the servers are recoverable?
  6. Can I just pay for what I use, or do I need dedicated servers in the cloud?

A great deal of education is still needed in the area of cloud computing. Using best practice techniques for data recovery is one way to ensure that any implementation is a successful one. However, the biggest impact cloud can have on recovery involves making it a viable technology for businesses of all sizes.

About Robert Gast 8 Articles
Robert Gast reports on emerging information management technologies for business and serves as a technology writer for Vision Solutions (www.visionsolutions.com). Vision Solutions, Inc. is the world’s leading provider of information availability software and services for Windows, Linux, IBM Power Systems, Virtualized and Cloud Computing markets.

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