Why recover from disaster when you can avoid it?

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Sidestepping technology disasters is much easier -- and affordable -- now for businesses large and small

As I write this on a cold winter Friday afternoon, most of the Northeastern United States is abuzz in preparations for an incoming blizzard. By the time this posts, we'll all know whether the "snowmageddon" Storm Nemo hype spun by the weather folks was true. In the meantime, the forecast of multiple feet of snow combined with high winds has created the real possibility of long-lasting power outages and tough travel. As a result, IT directors throughout the region are scrambling to make sure they're ready.

Of course, the lead-up to a big storm is always the time people seem to realize they've forgotten a detail or two. As a consultant and adviser, I've received more than a few panicked calls over the years asking whether I happen to have a few extra servers (or even an enterprise-class SAN!) kicking around "just in case." We all know that planning for a disaster when you're staring it in the face is probably too late, but what if there's a different way to approach the question of disaster preparedness in IT?

In the old days, the idea of transitioning mission-critical workloads to a data center that's not in the path of a storm might have been a capability that only a few of the very largest enterprises could afford to implement (and even then for relatively small portions of their infrastructure). However, as storage and virtualization technologies have continued to advance and cloud infrastructure offerings mature, the ability to completely sidestep disasters rather than weathering the storm has become available to many more organizations.

Not all that long ago, if you wanted to make sure your IT operations could avoid a major weather event, you'd need a hot site. Typically, that meant full-scale data center facilities, a copy of nearly every piece of equipment you run at the primary data center, complicated failover procedures, and substantial network facilities to support cross-site data replication and post-failover user access.

Anyone who's done that work will tell you that, unless you're huge, building your own enterprise-class data center is often about as wise as investing in a boat -- except without the occasional joy of fishing trips when it's not in for repair. Raised floors, racks, and electrical distribution are one thing, but dual-redundant generators, UPS, and HVAC can add up to a prohibitive price tag.

Although the United States seems to lag behind much of the developed world in terms of the availability of high-speed WAN options, improvements are afoot. Even out in the sticks of northern New England that I call home, the prevalence of fiber-based Ethernet WAN services is growing in leaps and bounds -- it's now relatively cheap (not to mention possible) to implement the kinds of networks necessary to handle a smooth data center failover over long distances.

Small businesses can rely on cloud-based disaster recovery for even less cost
If it's become far easier and cheaper for most enterprises to implement disaster avoidance capability, what about the little guys? For small businesses that might have only a handful of servers, no amount of decreased costs and complexity brought about by technical advances will overcome the cost of both duplicating them and paying for the necessary network bandwidth to reach them at a colo facility.

However, as enterprises have increasingly opted to use colocation space rather than build their own data centers, small businesses can use cloud-based infrastructure as a hot site rather than building their own at a colo. A few weeks ago, I described some of the challenges involved in implementing disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS). But if done correctly, that kind of approach can be an excellent and relatively inexpensive way for small businesses to achieve the same levels of service as enterprises with their own dedicated hot sites.

Of course, no matter how you decide to prepare for an impending blizzard, hurricane, or flood, it's best to start the process when you're not under the gun. I'd wager that many businesses have rethought how they prepare for disasters following Hurricane Sandy, and perhaps some will after this blizzard.

I'd also bet that they wish they had considered making those changes without a real-life disaster to show them it was necessary. Even if this storm fizzles or you're nowhere near New England, take this opportunity to stop and think about your own disaster preparedness. You now have affordable options.

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