Restoring your CEO’s peace of mind

The CEO wants your assurance that irreplaceable data is stored and protected and that in the case of downtime, you'll be able to get the system back up and running with minimal interruption. Can you provide those assurances? Chris Bell reports

Storage has become so commoditised that organisations often confuse the presence of storage technology in the computer room with a data backup plan for the business. Although storage and disaster recovery go hand-in-hand, just because you regularly backup your data doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be able to recover it — at least not within the timeframe your CEO demands — which might turn it into an even worse disaster.

Does your organisation have a contingency plan for the kind of disaster that might disable your storage hardware? If you can’t afford system redundancy (a second storage device and backup process, mirroring the first, at twice the cost), Auckland company Plan-b provides a service that aims to protect your data and preserve your CEO’s peace of mind.

Plan-b’s list of customers has grown from 250 last year to 320 today, and includes organisations such as Lumley Insurance. Founder and director Martin Wellesley says contingency planning is a big worry for the executives responsible for business continuity in most New Zealand organisations: the CFOs.

“Because the acceptance of downtime is ever-decreasing, every time an organisation moves to some new form of backup, they’re worried about what’s going to happen when that goes down because they’ve grown more and more dependent on it.”

Wellesley says technology advancements have not addressed the challenge of restoring data in the event of a fire or a server outage. “CEOs worry about the reality that systems fall over and paralyse the business, and they feel helpless to remedy it.” What’s lacking, he says, is a backup and recovery arrangement as solid for businesses as insurance is for householders. “CEOs worry that they’re being told by IT that there’s a backup of critical business data, but they have never seen this plan tested and proven within a timetable that’s acceptable to them.”

But when it comes to backup offerings, Wellesley claims the choices for New Zealand organisations are stark. “There’s a lot of discussion around getting faster, better and cheaper means of storage, but we don’t see much discussion about the backup mechanism to go with that. In fact, companies have only two real options: they can replicate their technology offsite, which costs a lot, or Plan-b has the other option for those who are happy to be back up and running in a day or so.”

Plan-B charges its customers a monthly fee, with an additional surcharge should a recovery plan need to be activated. The company operates three facilities in Auckland, including two with up to 90 seats for clients who need to relocate employees, in addition to its purpose-built head office. It stores customer backup tapes and uses couriers to collect and regularly rotate them.

Many organisations continue to rely on tape over other forms of storage for their backup because, although recovery from tape takes longer than it does from newer technologies such as storage area networks, it’s a cost-effective medium and many find the slower timeframe acceptable. “A total disaster isn’t going to happen very often, and tape can get them back up and running in a few hours. It’s an affordable arrangement, so they continue with it.”

While external factors might affect the recovery timeframe, Plan-b equates its service with that of an insurance company and does everything it can to be in a state of readiness. “You pay your monthly premium, put a burglar alarm in place, see that it’s tested and, in the event you’re burgled, the insurance company pays out because you’ve done all your preparation.”

Plan-b’s “burglar alarm” is its requirement for customers to follow its specified backup practice and to supply it with all files. “Plan-b incorporates a documented guide, with a very clear backup practice to adopt. If you put that in place, it eases the restoration of data and helps us get you up and running again. If your backup practice is fine, the recovery timeframe is mainly set by the tape speed, which is the technology limitation.”

When organisations are writing backup and recovery plans, Wellesley advises them to document only what matters, rather than wasting valuable resources publishing lengthy policy documents. “People document their need, which is fine, but then they write whole books about it. We say forget about that. Instead, find an arrangement that gets you up and running within the timeframe your CEO is happy with, and document it. That way, you get rid of endless procedural meetings and discussions about things for which there are no solutions.”

IT managers are familiar with the adage that what isn’t measured cannot be improved. But in storing and backing-up business-critical data, the adage is that what has not been proven to meet your CEO’s objective is a waste of money.

SIDEBAR Data backups

- What are your backup arrangements? Don’t be vague — articulate them and write them down

- Has recovery from your backup arrangements ever been tested and proven? If you’ve never tested your backup strategy then disregard it

- Can the business be up and running again within the timeframe specified by your CEO? Unless you test that you can recover your data within the timeframe, you don’t know you can do it

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