Continuity in the Cloud

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2010-06-08

Continuity in the Cloud

At first glance, using the cloud-based storage you've already got as your business continuity solution makes perfect sense. Your corporate data is already going somewhere offsite for storage, the people at your cloud provider automatically back up files, and you can get to your data when you need it. What's not to like?

Actually, there could be plenty not to like, depending on what's stored with your cloud provider, what you need at your existing location to conduct business and how prepared you are to move from one location to the other.

Putting your data in the cloud means just that. Your company's data is out there, safe (we hope) in another data center located somewhere that you're not. But using that data is another problem entirely.

How accessible will your data be if you can't recover it from your existing data center, you can't use it with your existing applications, and you can't use the rest of your infrastructure as a place in which to conduct business? After all, your business is more than just data: It's also what you do with that data.

"Business continuity, even with the cloud, isn't simple," said Zeus Kerravala, senior vice president of research for the Yankee Group. "There's a lot more to it than merely copying data to the cloud." He recommends asking these important questions: "What's a cost-effective way? How do you keep [data] in sync? How do you point your applications to it? There are a lot of other things that have to be considered.

"The biggest part is the process side," Kerravala added. "Assuming that it works, how do you use the data once it's in the cloud?" He warned that a lot of backup and recovery companies may be doing this for the first time and may not be able to provide a proven solution.

Considering Continuity Needs

Considering Continuity Needs

Lauren Whitehouse, senior analyst for the Enterprise Strategy Group, noted that just because you're already storing information in the cloud doesn't mean you're doing it in a way that will help with business continuity. She said it's important that your provider be able to handle the requirements of bringing your business back-and being able to do it in a timely manner. That, she said, depends on how long your business can stand being offline.

"Some businesses can't stand any interruption," Whitehouse said, "so they need a system that can immediately take over." She noted that such a business continuity solution needs to be in a location that is geographically dispersed from where the company's data center is located, so that the same disaster doesn't affect both locations.

You also need to determine whether you can restore your business using the tools at hand. "Can you recover your business from your daily backups?" Whitehouse asked. "Considering the fire drill that results [after a disaster], businesses should put something else in place."

The first step to using the cloud for business continuity, according to Whitehouse, is to determine what applications must be available immediately for your business to keep running. Critical applications can also be saved to the cloud and set up so that they can be run remotely using data that's also in the cloud.

For most companies, this will mean finding a cloud provider that can handle both your data and your applications. It must also be able to support access to those applications while they are running in the virtual environment at the provider's location.

The way this would work depends on your needs and on the capabilities of your cloud provider. In some cases, you might want to install your applications with a co-location service and point those applications to your data in the cloud. In other situations, you might want to use something like Amazon's EC2 elastic cloud computing service and its S3 storage service.

This isn't necessarily a case of simply copying everything to the cloud and then using it, Whitehouse pointed out. First of all, when you're trying to bring your business back online, you can't bring up everything at once in most cases. Instead, you need to have already decided which applications are the most critical for your business and have made plans to get them online first. "It's a triage process," Whitehouse noted.

The triage begins when you start deciding which applications are the most important to get online first. You will need to determine what applications are vital to your business immediately, and start there. For many companies, this may be e-mail; for others, it may be the customer service or sales applications.

The next step is to make sure your employees know what to expect if you ever need to use the business continuity solution. Depending on the company, this may mean keeping it live and having some employees use it on a regular basis from a remote location. For others, it may mean simulating a real recovery effort, complete with evacuating to a remote office. Just as is the case with fire drills, it's important to have practiced your emergency response before the emergency happens.

Dealing with Challenges

Dealing with Challenges

The problem, of course, is that all of this can require an enormous amount of work, and many businesses don't have the necessary bandwidth to do the planning and implementation. In addition, there may be critical functions that can't simply be copied to the cloud, such as the phone system. For this reason, companies such as Agility Recovery Solutions provide complete business continuity systems, including everything from preconfigured computers, a replacement phone system and even a temporary workspace so that a company can get back in business immediately.

According to Paul Sullivan, Agility vice president and general manager, the replacement facility can be located anywhere from the company parking lot (in case the disaster was only within the building, such as a fire) to another city (for an area-wide problem such as a hurricane or earthquake).

Sullivan noted that one typical response to business continuity-having people work from home-isn't always feasible. "The assumption that you can send people home to work isn't always true because some people may not be able to work from home," he pointed out. "Less than 30 percent of people have high-speed Internet access at home."

Using the cloud for business continuity also means you may have to set up your production infrastructure so that all your data is replicated to the cloud in real time, so you don't lose anything if a disaster happens. The way to accomplish this, according to Justin Giardina, CTO of iland Internet Solutions, depends on the infrastructure you have.

"It's easier for customers using virtualization," Giardina said, adding that virtualization makes it "easier to do a disaster recovery plan and backups to the cloud." He noted that moving data to the cloud is also fairly straightforward in a SAN (storage area network) environment by doing SAN-to-SAN replication.

Private cloud storage ensures that companies have access to their data and applications when they need them, according to Giardina. Virtualized desktops enable employees to use any computer, including kiosks, to access company data and do their work, he added.

Giardina and Agility's Sullivan agree that one critical issue for ensuring success with cloud-based business continuity is to make sure that there's enough bandwidth available to perform large replications of data. Giardina noted that a slow connection could take hours or days to synchronize data.

It's impossible to know when an event will bring about the need for business continuity recovery, so it's critical to be prepared to manage that recovery remotely and to be able to conduct work from a remote site or from diverse locations.

Contributing analyst Wayne Rash is a veteran technology writer and reviewer.

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