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How to build a successful disaster recovery strategy

Whether your industry faces challenges from geopolitical strife, fallout from a global pandemic or rising aggression in the cybersecurity space, the threat vector for modern enterprises is undeniably powerful. Disaster recovery strategies provide the framework for team members to get a business back up and running after an unplanned event.

Worldwide, the popularity of disaster recovery strategies is understandably increasing. Last year, companies spent USD 219 billion on cybersecurity and solutions alone, a 12% increase from 2022, according to a recent report by the International Data Corporation (IDC) (link resides outside ibm.com).

A disaster recovery strategy lays out how your businesses will respond to a number of unplanned incidents. Strong disaster recovery strategies consist of disaster recovery plans (DR plans), business continuity plans (BCPs) and incident response plans (IRPs). Together, these documents help ensure businesses are prepared to face a variety of threats including power outages, ransomware and malware attacks, natural disasters and many more.

What is a disaster recovery plan (DRP)?

Disaster recovery plans (DRPs) are detailed documents describing how companies will respond to different types of disasters. Typically, companies either build DRPs themselves or outsource their disaster recovery process to a third-party DRP vendor. Along with business continuity plans (BCPs) and incident response plans (IRPs), DRPs play a critical role in the effectiveness of disaster recovery strategy.

What are business continuity plans and incident response plans?

Like DRPs, BCPs and IRPs are both parts of a larger disaster recovery strategy that a business can rely on to help restore normal operations in the event of a disaster. BCPs typically take a broader look at threats and resolution options than DRPs, focusing on what a company needs to restore connectivity. IRPs are a type of DRP that focuses exclusively on cyberattacks and threats to IT systems. IRPs clearly outline an organization’s real-time emergency response from the moment a threat is detected through its mitigation and resolution. 

Why having a disaster recovery strategy is important

Disasters can impact businesses in different ways, causing all kinds of complex problems. From an earthquake that affects physical infrastructure and worker safety to a cloud services outage that closes off access to sensitive data storage and customer services, having a sound disaster recovery strategy helps ensure businesses will recover quickly. Here are some of the greatest benefits of building a strong disaster recovery strategy:

  • Maintaining business continuity: Business continuity and business continuity disaster recovery (BCDR) help ensure organizations return to normal operations after an unplanned event, providing data protection, data backup and other critical services.
  • Reducing costs: According to IBM’s recent Cost of Data Breach Report, the average cost of a data breach in 2023 was USD 4.45 million—a 15% increase over the last 3 years. Enterprises without disaster recovery strategies in place are risking costs and penalties that could far outweigh the money saved by not investing in the solution.
  • Incurring less downtime: Modern enterprises rely on complex technologies like cloud-based infrastructure solutions and cellular networks. When an unplanned incident disrupts business operations, it can cost millions. Additionally, the high-profile nature of cyberattacks, lengthy downtime, or human-error-related interruptions can cause customers and investors to flee.
  • Maintaining compliance: Businesses that operate in heavily regulated sectors like healthcare and personal finance face heavy fines and penalties for data breaches because of the critical nature of the data they manage. Having a strong disaster recovery strategy helps shorten response and recovery processes after an unplanned incident, which is critical in sectors where the amount of financial penalty is often tied to the duration of the breach.

How disaster recovery strategies work

The strongest disaster recovery strategies prepare businesses to face a wide variety of threats. A strong template for restoring normal operations can help build investor and customer confidence and increase the likelihood you will recover from whatever threats your business faces. Before we get into the actual components of disaster recovery strategies, let’s look at a few key terms.

  • Failover/failback: Failover is a widely used process in IT disaster recovery where operations are moved to a secondary system when a primary one fails due to a power outage, cyberattack or other threat. Failback is the process of switching back to the original system once normal processes have been restored. For example, a business could failover from its data center onto a secondary site where a redundant system will kick in instantly. If executed properly, failover/failback can create a seamless experience where a user/customer isn’t even aware they are being moved to a secondary system.
  • Recovery time objective (RTO): RTO refers to the amount of time it takes to restore business operations after an unplanned incident. Establishing a reasonable RTO is one of the first things businesses need do when they’re creating their disaster recovery strategy.  
  • Recovery point objective (RPO): Your business’ RPO is the amount of data it can afford to lose and still recover. Some enterprises constantly copy data to a remote data center to ensure continuity. Others set a tolerable RPO of a few minutes (or even hours) and know they will be able to recover from whatever was lost during that time.
  • Disaster Recovery-as-a-Service (DRaaS): DRaaS is an approach to disaster recovery that’s been gaining popularity due to a growing awareness around the importance of data security. Companies that take a DRaaS approach to disaster recovery are essentially outsourcing their disaster recovery plans (DRPs) to a third party. This third party hosts and manages the necessary infrastructure for recovery, then creates and manages response plans and ensures a swift resumption of business-critical operations. According to a recent report by Global Market Insights (GMI) (link resides outside ibm.com), the market size for DRaaS was USD 11.5 billion in 2022 and was poised to grow by 22% in the years ahead.

Five steps to creating a strong disaster recovery strategy

Disaster recovery planning starts with a deep analysis of your most critical business processes—known as business impact analysis (BIA) and risk assessment (RA). While every business is different and will have unique requirements, there are several steps you can take regardless of your size or industry that will help ensure effective disaster recovery planning.

Step 1: Conduct a business impact analysis

Business impact analysis (BIA) is a careful assessment of every threat your company faces, along with the possible outcomes. Strong BIA looks at how threats might impact daily operations, communication channels, worker safety and other critical parts of your business. Examples of a few factors to consider when conducting BIA include loss of revenue, length and cost of downtime, cost of reputational repair (public relations), loss of customer or investor confidence (short and long term), and any penalties you might face because of compliance violations caused by an interruption.

Step 2: Perform a risk analysis

Threats vary greatly depending on your industry and the type of business you run. Conducting sound risk analysis (RA) is a critical step in crafting your strategy. You can assess each potential threat separately by considering two things——the likelihood it will occur and its potential impact on business operations. There are two widely used methods for this: qualitative and quantitative risk analysis. Qualitative risk analysis is based on perceived risk and quantitative analysis is performed using verifiable data.

Step 3: Create your asset inventory

Disaster recovery relies on having a complete picture of every asset your enterprise owns. This includes hardware, software, IT infrastructure, data and anything else that’s critical to your business operations. Here are three widely used labels for categorizing your assets:

  • Critical: Only label assets critical if they are required for normal business operations.
  • Important: Assign this label to assets your business uses at least once a day and, if disrupted, would have an impact on business operations (but not shut them down entirely).
  • Unimportant: These are assets your business uses infrequently that are not essential for normal business operations.

Step 4: Establish roles and responsibilities 

Clearly assigning roles and responsibilities is arguably the most important part of a disaster recovery strategy. Without it, no one will know what to do in the event of a disaster. While actual roles and responsibilities vary greatly according to company size, industry and type of business, there are a few roles and responsibilities that every recovery strategy should contain:

  • Incident reporter: An individual who is responsible for communicating with stakeholders and relevant authorities when disruptive events occur and maintaining up-to-date contact information for all relevant parties.
  • Disaster recovery plan manager: Your DRP manager ensures disaster recovery team members perform the tasks they’ve been assigned and that the strategy you put in place runs smoothly. 
  • Asset manager: You should assign someone the role of securing and protecting critical assets when a disaster strikes and reporting back on their status throughout the incident.

Step 5: Test and refine

To ensure your disaster recovery strategy is sound, you’ll need to practice it constantly and regularly update it according to any meaningful changes. For example, if your company acquires new assets after the formation of your DRP strategy, they will need to be folded into your plan to ensure they are protected going forward. Testing and refinement of your disaster recovery strategy can be broken down into three simple steps:

  1. Create an accurate simulation: When rehearsing your DRP, try to create an environment as close to the actual scenario your company will face without putting anyone at physical risk.
  2. Identify problems: Use the DRP testing process to identify faults and inconsistencies with your plan, simplify processes and address any issues with your backup procedures.
  3. Test your disaster recovery procedures: Seeing how you’ll respond to an incident is vital, but it’s just as important to test the procedures you’ve put in place for restoring critical systems once the incident is over. Test how you’ll turn networks back on, recover any lost data and resume normal business operations. 

Disaster recovery solutions

Modern enterprises rely more than ever on technology to serve their customers. Even minor outages can cause critical downtime and impact customer and investor confidence. The IBM FlashSystem Cyber Recovery Guarantee is designed for anyone who purchases a new FlashSystem Array with IBM Storage expert care and IBM Storage Insights Pro.

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