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Volume 32, Issue 3

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Thursday, 22 August 2019 16:38

How MSPs Can Prepare Small Businesses for Hurricanes and Other Disasters

Written by  MATTHEW RICHARDS

Chief Marketing Officer at Datto

Hurricane season is upon us. Hurricanes and coastal storms can cause immense destruction and leave communities struggling to recover. One of the biggest impacts of these storms is often not apparent to the naked eye -- damage to technology infrastructure and lack of access to critical business systems -- leading to ‘downtime’.

According to Gartner, the average cost of downtime to businesses is $5,600 per minute, which is more than $300,000 per hour. While that’s no picnic for any business, $300,000 per hour can cripple many small and medium businesses (SMBs). Addressing business disaster preparedness before the first hurricane makes landfall can minimize or completely mitigate the risk of loss.

When downtime strikes an SMB, business stops. Customers cannot make purchases or access account information. Employees can’t work. Over 1 in 4 SMBs have lost business in the last year due to an IT-related problem. SMBs that don’t prioritize business continuity and disaster recovery (BCDR) strategies are embracing risky business practices. They could be one power outage, flood, or keystroke away from disaster.

There are several factors to consider when building out a business continuity strategy:

  • Critical assets and workflows. Businesses need to take inventory of their technology assets, triage the critical, important and nice to have, and develop corresponding recovery requirements.  
  • Service level. A business continuity strategy needs to include a service level agreement (SLA) that supports the following:
    • Recovery Point Objective (RPO): the acceptable level of data loss expressed in time. In other words, how old is your latest backup at the time a disaster strikes.
    • Recovery Time Objective (RTO): the amount of time that clients and employees are likely to accept a loss of service. In other words, how long from the disaster until your systems are up and running again.
  • Service Alignment. Once a business understands its assets, workflows and recovery objectives, it needs to select a service provider and corresponding solution to support its business needs and goals. 
  • To outsource or not. Depending on the size and skills of the IT team, it might make sense to outsource IT services, freeing up employees to focus on strategic business activities.
Ensuring Data Access is Critical During and Following a Disaster

In addition to business continuity, small businesses must ensure secure, consistent and reliable access to their data to keep the business running both smoothly and profitably. To meet these continuous data access requirements, SMBs often rely on technologies that enable them to back up their data and then restore it at a moment’s notice. 

The traditional backup method employs tape backups and is fairly inexpensive but leads to slower backups, longer recovery times, and requires management of physical tapes. With tape, SMBs are sequentially backing up their data on a physical device. Hard disks offer a faster backup and recovery process than tape and include additional benefits such as deduplication and data compression, but are still subject to backup chain corruption.

Many businesses still cling to these traditional backup processes. However, if a disaster strikes, these businesses can’t guarantee the timely restore of the backup, nor can they ensure the backup chain will work properly when needed. Sometimes it can take weeks to order, install software, and rebuild that server from a traditional backup.

Today, business continuity is a state-of-the-art solution. Lose a server, spin up a backup image on-site or in the cloud in minutes and get back to work. No more rebuilding a server from uncertain and unverified tape, or corrupted backup chains. Before selecting such a solution, SMBs need to ask themselves a few questions: How much downtime can they afford? Which contingency is right for their business? Do they need their data saved offsite in the case of a local disaster? Options include:

  • Hybrid cloud backup. Hybrid cloud backup is a cost-effective solution being adopted by many SMBs. The hybrid cloud backup solution backs up data to a local device, which in turn backs up a copy to a secure offsite data center for redundancy. Protected servers are backed up to a local device first, so they don’t have to worry about the replication to the cloud affecting the performance of the server or their Internet connection. Then, the backup images are automatically backed up from the local device to a secure offsite data center after business hours. The hybrid cloud backup gives SMBs the security they need to quickly get back up and running following all data disasters.
  • Direct-to-cloud backup. With direct-to-cloud backups, SMBs can send their data directly to the cloud, bypassing the need for a local device. In this case, they can back up data in a remote data center, without the local copy in their office. This is a much better solution for laptops, for example, that are constantly shifting networks and rarely in one place for long enough to take a complete backup. Depending on Internet speeds and specs of machines, these backups could take much longer than a hybrid cloud backup.
  • Recover from a local device. This only works if the SMB has an appliance locally. Some solutions actually allow MSPs to spin up a virtual machine right from the local device, so their business operations (applications, settings, files, folders) can run from the device. This may be a great option if they’ve experienced a server failure or a cyber-attack like Ransomware. And because the SMB is recovering with their local appliance, downtime is minimal.
  • Recover from the cloud. Some solutions require SMBs to download their backup data from the cloud. This involves transferring gigabytes or even terabytes of data over an Internet connection (in most cases) which could result in hours or even days of downtime. If this is the route taken, it’s imperative businesses explicitly choose the slower solution knowing this is the intended result.
  • Recover right in the cloud. If the local device is damaged or site is lost, some providers can spin up a virtual machine for you right in the cloud. In other words, the SMB can continue to run important applications right from the cloud, accessing their data and files as needed until they get their local site back up and running.

One final consideration that is often not part of the business continuity contingency planning process is how long it takes to get back to normal operations. It is fantastic that a local appliance or cloud-hosted virtual machine can spin up in minutes, and that the business can be back up and running in a failover environment, but what about failback? Few people consider that it can take days to copy an operational server and all of those changes back to the local server. Many vendors offer a range of options, such as:

  • Bare Metal Restore. With bare metal restore, a bootable USB is plugged into the new machine. The failover machine is snapshotted, shut down and the image is downloaded to the local server. This can take a long time and sometimes is faster when a hard drive is shipped out to the failback server. When all data is copied locally, the local server is rebooted and the business has failed back to normal operations.
  • Delta Copy Restore. In this scenario, the failover server is continuously snapshotting backups and sending them to the failback server. These are then copied as soon as they complete back to the failback server. In this way, the failover server and the failback server are kept in a similar state, and only deltas are sent back to the local failback server. At the last moment, the failover server is snapshotted one last time, and that small last delta is sent back. This is much faster than bare metal restore.
  • Changed Files Restore. In some situations, such as a ransomware attack, most files on the failed server are exactly the same, it is just the documents folder and like files that are encrypted and ransomed, all other files (like .DLLs) are left alone. In these cases, it is faster to copy only a recent backup of the compromised files back to the failback server. In these cases, a failover server may not even be needed.

Clearly, there is a lot to think about when considering business continuity contingency plans, including the value of the data and the criticality of the systems to the business. While there is no single right answer, a thoughtful review to get to the right contingency plan for you is the most important step in the process.

Success Story:

Frontline Computer Services is a managed service provider (MSP) in Richmond, Texas with clientele in the Houston area. In advance of the 2017 hurricane season, Frontline’s CEO and Principal Technology Consultant, Stephen Johnston, preemptively backed up all of his clients’ data off-site and sent them an email about disaster preparedness best practices.

During Hurricane Harvey, one of Frontline’s clients, an executive services team, Corporate Assets, had a foot of water in its office. One of the business’s computers had been left on the floor and succumbed to the flooding. Fortunately, Johnston had already backed up the company’s data.

With Corporate Assets’ office uninhabitable, Johnston needed to help the team into a new location and connect them to a network to get online as quickly as possible, enabling them to access their backups and get back to work. Luckily, Frontline Computer Services works with a vendor that already had a disaster response team on the ground, ready to supply him with networking devices for any clients that needed to get back online. Once Harvey subsided, the Frontline team gave a networking appliance to Corporate Assets with complete 4G LTE failover. Corporate Assets was back in business and didn’t need to wait for weeks for the local ISP to be back up and running.

Conclusion

These are just a few of the ways SMBs can ensure business continuity and protect their business-critical infrastructure from disasters like hurricanes. There are advantages to each approach, but finding a solution that offers the combination of fast, reliable backups and robust recovery solutions can determine how quickly and easily a business will recover. 

Matt RichardsMatthew Richards serves as Datto’s Chief Marketing Officer. In his role, Richards is responsible for Datto’s marketing strategy, planning and execution, which includes driving brand awareness, generating demand for Datto product lines, and enabling the Datto channel. Richards brings more than 20 years of marketing, emerging technology commercialization, and information systems experience to the marketing team. Prior to Datto, Matt was VP of Products and Markets at OwnCloud and held key management positions at CA Technologies, Novell, and IBM. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Dartmouth College and earned his MBA in New Product and Venture Development from M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management.