New Realities in Handling Disasters

With the development of replication software, the elusive "five nines" of reliability and uptime are becoming reality for many networks.
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By Mike Talon

Disaster planning has long been treated as a sideline project for IT departments, not worthy of serious focus or budgetary concern.

Then came Sept. 11, and in its wake the need to prepare for catastrophe has become a front-and-center necessity for businesses big and small. Indeed, business continuity planning has become an industry unto itself, spawning a new and revised view of what it means to prepare for a disaster.

Today, the idea that a disaster will strike has shifted from a possibility to a probability in the minds of corporate officials, forcing technology staffs to realize that downtime for any reason is unacceptable.

Highlighting this is the attention CFOs and CEOs are now placing on Information Technology (IT) recourses. Recovery Time Objectives (the amount of time it takes to bounce back from a disaster to full productivity) and Recovery Point Objectives (the amount of acceptable data loss after a disaster) have shrunk to the point that tape backup systems can no longer protect the enterprise.

Companies are now expected to ensure Disaster Prevention, part of business continuity and the processes by which vital data resources are protected and operate uninterrupted regardless. This is the proverbial "five nines" of reliability and uptime (99.999% availability), resulting in a maximum of a few minutes of unscheduled downtime annually -- a lofty goal, but a difficult one to meet in the best of circumstances.

How did business reach this level of necessity? Where did the idea of business continuity evolve from, and how did we reach this new plateau of standards to keep business up and running? What circumstances brought the enterprise from veritable carelessness only a few short years ago to the vital vigilance that we see today? While Sept. 11 may have shone a spotlight on this necessity, the evolution of data protection systems has been an ongoing process since the dawn of Information Technology.

New Technologies, New Problems

Prior to the dot-com craze, enterprises kept data either on paper or some other physical media (i.e. hardcopy, punch-cards, etc). Not being stored in digital form, theoretically, business data could survive any digital disaster.

However, it still was susceptible to physical disasters such as an earthquake or fire, so to combat these issues companies began storing physical copies off-site in repository or secure facility. (This is a critical concept, as this theory of off-site storage later crosses over into the digital world in a nearly identical form.)

In addition, mainframe systems of the time were backed up to heavily protected magnetic tape. The data kept on them was generally used in conjunction with physical hardcopy, so that a loss of the system for a day to restore data wouldn't bring down the enterprise.

Then came the widespread deployment of desktop computers, and data was no longer safe because employees were not storing vital corporate data on the company mainframe or in physical files. Suddenly, power fluctuations, physical anomalies, and a host of other disasters could literally wipe out valuable data without any potential of restoring it.

Recognizing the risk this presented, backup systems and office-based servers emerged to begin to protect corporate data on PCs in the same way that paper files and mainframes magnetic tapes were protected.

Moving forward, smaller server systems, which offered a more flexible and economical alternative to the older, slower mainframe systems, were implemented. Not surprisingly, mainframe systems began to dwindle and disappear, even in the enterprise space.

This new computing power presented a whole new host of potential problems, not the least of which was data loss. Once again there were worries about the desktops getting vital data to the server systems and the fact that the server systems themselves were barely more secure than the desktop.

The newest solution became constructing more complex backup systems to shift the data from the volatile servers to a somewhat more stable backup media, such as magnetic tape. Having tapes to restore lost data or even entire data-systems in the event of a disaster seemed like the perfect solution.

Downtime Drains Bottom Line

But companies became more and more dependent on data-systems and it became apparent that waiting to restore data caused not only revenue loss, but also damaged customer relationships and the company's reputation. To address the need for virtually no downtime, disaster recovery services were born.

The field of Disaster Recovery Services (DRS) is extraordinarily broad, but its purpose is simple: Restore data to a downed or corrupted server system or other data-system as quickly as possible. DRS extends from re-configuring tape systems to make them more reliable and faster to keeping duplicate servers on standby to allow them to take over at a moment's notice.


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