Virtualisation technologies, coupled with the Information Exostructure, are changing the rules for managing Disaster Recovery. This is still one of those subject areas where a large percentage of users still seem to believe that it simply cannot happen to them, so there is no need to either plan for it or make any specific provision for it. The Information Exostructure, however, makes planning and implementing Disaster Recovery strategies a far easier prospect. Indeed, it is fast becoming a 'service by-product' of the Exostructure, rather than its history of being expensive and intrusive on the running of business systems.
For many larger businesses, Disaster Recovery has to be a core part of the business plan, and will often include the provision of off-site facilities in order to ensure that business processes continue to function normally. The degree to which this concept is pursued will, of course, vary with the type of business. Some, in sectors such as financial services where a minute of downtime can result in significant losses, establish complete, fully equipped, unused offices that are available at a moment's notice, just in case.
The majority of these businesses however already have the advantage of multiple locations, either within a single country or around the world, and so it normally makes sense for them to plan Disaster Recovery around their existing dispersed infrastructures, mirroring data between them. Such a model does, of course, demand a high level of investment and an existing business network of geographically dispersed operations.
This, however, is well beyond the means of the majority of businesses. And although many hope they can avoid the expense and aggaravation, they still need sound Disaster Recovery plans and capabilities in place. And even where the capital investment can be justified, a more cost effective solution is always interesting. There is a solution now coming more widely available that fits this need. It is a component of a growing trend in delivering IT infrastructures and services to business from external service providers rather than onsite infrastructure—some call it 'The Cloud', but that, in practice, is a rather meaningless term. I prefer to call it the Information Exostructure, which is defined as an externally sourced, (and theoretically limitless) seamless extension of an internal IT systems infrastructure that delivers information services.
This is the reincarnation of outsourcing and timesharing, but with far greater power and capability available to end users. This is achieved by exploiting the growing number of co-location, remote hosting and managed services vendors that are springing up across the world. For the users, they offer a fundamental advantage—the ability to extend and grow their existing IT infrastructure without the necessity of capital investment in new systems and software, or the additional management costs associated with running them. Instead they can access the systems of these specialist service providers, via the Internet, for a fee, typically paid monthly.
The primary objective of all these services is for the users to off-load at least part of their IT infrastructure onto a third party. One common practice is to effectively off-load a new service or business requirement by taking it from a specialist service provider rather than attempting to implement it on the onsite infrastructure and Disaster Recovery—historically a very specialist and expensive business requirement—is a classic example of this. When it comes to Disaster Recovery there are already a growing number of companies offering this to businesses as an external service. The typical service approach is to monitor the client's onsite environment for changes and store them so a current, or more exactly a very recent, operating position can be recovered by downloading it from the service provider.
Such services fall into the Software as a Service (SaaS) category of exostructure, where a complete, packaged business process is provided to the end user. The services available in this form cover most major business processes, such as Enterprise Resource Management, Customer Relationship Management and Business Accounts Management, through more specialist service provision such as project management and document content management, and on to more technical services like email management and IT services management. It terms of Disaster Recovery, of course, the fact that SaaS is a full service provided by an external service provider means there is an inherent level of Disaster Recovery built in—the service is running on the service provider's datacentre resources and it is their problem if it doesn't work. The service providers are, or certainly should be, well aware of this issue.
Alternatives to SaaS include remote hosting services, where the users applications and data are hosted on servers owned and managed by the service provider; or on a fully managed service where every aspect of the users' IT requirements is delivered via the Internet by the service provider. With all of these, the important fact is that such services deliver extra resources, agreed levels of service availability and access to fast and affordable scalability without the expense or drama of specifying, purchasing, installing or managing additional onsite IT infrastructure.
This gives users significant advantages in terms of operational flexibility and its partner in crime, business agility. There is still a cost to be paid, but because it is in the form of an additional monthly fee to the service provider it is less than the equivalent capital expenditure, attracts little or no additional management costs, and can often be made available for use as soon as the contract can be negotiated.
For users this also means that such increases in available resources need not be a permanent addition, as they would be if acquired for an onsite infrastructure. They can, if the need arises, make temporary use of the ability to expand their operations, and simply relinquish the additional resources once the specific task has been completed. This is because the service providers are best positioned to make maximum use of virtualisation technologies. By utilising the ability to run 20 or more virtual servers on every physical server they are able to provide significant resource levels to users, and make those resources available to users at short notice, and often for short time periods, without having to add more physical hardware.
For users this is a major advantage. It becomes a simple task to contract for additional temporary resources in which a complete mirror of a production environment can be created. Here, it becomes possible to test a wide range of potential disaster scenarios in an environment logically separated from the working production environment, but in most respects identical to it. The testing is, therefore, in a safe sandbox; but it utilises as big a system as necessary without the need to purchase the installation in the first place. Such testing can range from identifying problem interdependencies when new applications or services are added, through to worst-case catastrophic failure of the entire IT infrastructure.
The same approach can be used for providing system mirroring, even for users that are primarily committed to onsite operations. A hosting service can still be used to provide a Disaster Recovery mirror of at least the minimum IT environment required to either maintain or restart business operations. Here, the requirement will be primarily built around storage of the applications and data, together with whatever processing resources are required to update the stored data on a defined schedule.
The final piece will cover the processor resources required to manage the recovery process should that be required. And that recovery process can range from simply uploading the latest dataset and applications onto the onsite environment, through to running a mirrored production environment—in order to provide full business continuity—until the onsite infrastructure is ready to take over again.
Perhaps its biggest advantage for users, however, is that it has the potential to save significant amounts of money for those users that do operate Disaster Recovery plans, as well as making it both economical and operationally straight forward for those that have traditionally sidestepped the issue on grounds of cost and inconvenience. As a minimum an off-site mirror system can be set up with a service provider without recourse to capital investment in equipment or office space, while for those users that opt for a hosted service the issues of Disaster Recovery become the problem of the service provider.
In that respect there is one final advantage, in that Disaster Recovery is a requirement they do take seriously as it is part of their core service offering. This does mean that they will (or most certainly should) have far higher skills at implementing and managing Disaster Recovery than the vast majority of their customers, leaving the latter free to concentrate more on their core business.