Disaster recovery strategies: Should you outsource, manage in-house or partner?

In disaster recovery facility site selection, a key consideration is whether to outsource, maintain your site in-house or partner with others on disaster recovery strategy.

Your disaster recovery (DR) plan is coming together. You haven't, however, chosen a recovery site. As with most

corporations, your DR plan calls for recovery time objectives that rule out the use of a cold site. So you are faced with a few choices for a DR site: do it yourself, outsource to a DR provider, or collaborate with a partner. I've seen all three options work well for organizations, but the best option for yours depends on your needs and the requirements of each choice.

Let's take a look at each option in turn and its requirements. Whether you do it yourself, collaborate, or go the DR-solution-for-hire path, the physical location of your DR site should be far enough away from your production site that both are not compromised in a large scale event such as a hurricane.

Do-it-yourself disaster recovery
Most large enterprises have multiple data centers spread around the world. Most often using existing data center properties for DR proves the most economical path. Existing infrastructure between the sites and IT staff familiarity is a bonus. Most larger enterprises are in the process of or have finished leveraging virtualization to consolidate their many data centers into fewer data centers. This leaves facilities available to be utilized as DR centers. In the tech tip How many data centers are sufficient for disaster recovery? Two, three, or more? I discussed the optimal number of data centers that global enterprises should consider for DR purposes.

If you have existing data center facilities, make sure to explore these considerations:
  • Does the existing data center facility meet DR site resiliency and reliability needs?
  • Does the existing facility have enough power and cooling to meet the DR needs?
  • Is the existing facility located far enough away from the production data center to be safe from disaster risks in the area?
  • Does your business continuity plan demand production service levels when operating at the recovery site or can the business operate on reduced IT service levels?

If your answers to these questions indicate that existing facilities will meet your needs, then do-it-yourself is your answer. One last point to consider is the size/cost of the existing facility after a virtualization consolidation project. I have talked to several IT organizations that saw a dramatic decrease in space, power, and cooling requirements after they virtualized and consolidated their data centers to the tune of a 10-fold decrease. Their DR facilities were so large that it was less expensive for them to sell their oversized facility and build a newer, smaller facility; collaborate with a partner; or purchase space at a colocation facility.

Outsource your disaster recovery plan
DR outsourcing firms such as SunGard and IBM abound in the market. Many local hosting or colocation firms offer DR as an entrée item on their menu. Most DR providers offer value-added services to help you in building your DR solution and performing ongoing testing.

Many small to medium businesses (SMBs) utilize hosting and/or colocation facilities for their production IT operations. If your organization falls into this category, you will be best off utilizing your provider for DR as well, assuming your provider offers this service through use of another physically-distant facility.

If you have decided to outsource your DR solution, here are some provider requirements you must consider:
  • Can they produce a reference list of their existing DR clients whom you can contact? Your outsourcing candidate should be able to supply at least five good references. Any hesitancy or excuses in responding to this request are a red flag. Furthermore, the references should either be from varied vertical markets or from your same vertical market.
  • The DR outsourcing firm should clearly state their prices, service levels, and their penalties should they fail to deliver in their offering to you. Penalties usually occur in the form of fee rebates or credits.
  • Does the DR firm engage in over-booking? Should a wide scale disaster hit your region, contracting with a DR firm that engages in over-booking their facilities may leave you standing when the music stops. Some DR providers refuse to over-book so that they can guarantee service to their clients but peace-of-mind comes at greater cost. Be aware that the old saying still applies: "you get what you pay for." Firms that over-book their DR facilities tend to be substantially less expensive. On the other hand, a lower cost over-booking DR provider may be an option in a region that has very low risk of wide scale disasters.
  • Does the DR outsourcer encourage and utilize virtual infrastructure? Virtualization both speeds disaster recovery and lowers overall costs. Most are just now getting on the virtualization bandwagon, so check how long the outsourcer has been implementing virtualization technologies and ask for virtualized reference customers. They should have two or more years of experience with virtualized DR.

In selecting a DR provider, you must absolutely check the providers' references. I've been surprised at the number of IT organizations that have told me they were dissatisfied with well-known DR outsourcing providers, and much happier after switching to another provider.

Collaborate with a partner on a disaster recovery planning
I have seen a growing trend in two or more companies partnering with each other for DR. In one case, a larger organization owned a 19% stake in one of their key distributors. The two collaborated and used extra space in each other's data centers as DR facilities. This example was between two partners in private industry.

More common has been DR collaboration between higher educational institutions, government agencies and healthcare providers. Both data center sharing and joint funding of DR facilities offer cost savings to the partnership.

Before embarking on such a partnership, here are some requirements for success:
  • Shared DR facilities work best between partners in the same industry. This makes it easier to maintain the integrity of regulatory requirements and audits.
  • Both partners must have nearly identical security and operational governance of their production data centers.
  • Clear contractual terms are a requirement for sharing a DR facility sharing. Employees come and go, so everything must be spelled out in well-defined contracts.
  • Supplier/consumer partnerships are beginning to grow in popularity, but the consumer may also be working with the supplier's competitor – a condition that may spell too much risk for a DR partnership.

Lastly, if you have a DR facility in place already, you should review its applicability to your business continuity requirements on an annual basis. You may find that making a change can improve your service levels, reduce your costs or both. In today's economic environment, attaining cost savings through a different DR solution from the one you currently use is in order.

Do you agree with this tip? Contact Site Editor Matt Stansberry with your data center concerns and feedback.
This was first published in November 2008

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