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IT resilience: Ski resort takes DR to the cloud

A Vermont resort, aiming to protect core IT systems from disruption, has deployed a cloud-based disaster recovery system based on Zerto Virtual Replication and Microsoft Azure.

When a ski center decides to boost its IT resilience strategy, protection against weather-related events seems the obvious consideration.

For the Jay Peak Resort, however, a human threat tops the list of business continuity worries: cyberattacks. A couple of years ago, Jay Peak, located in Jay, Vt., in the northeastern part of the state, experienced a ransomware attack. And while the attack missed the resort's point-of-sale (POS) systems, other systems were affected and some employees lost a day's work.

Craig Russell, IT manager at Jay Peak, said the nature of what constitutes a disaster today encompasses more than traditional concerns such as floods and other weather events.

"I'm more concerned with bad actors -- malware and ransomware," he said.

Jay Peak has a lot at stake in any disruption of its IT systems, regardless of cause. The year-round resort has quadrupled its revenue over the past 10 years, during which time it added hotels, condos, an ice rink, a golf clubhouse and an indoor waterpark. But it's during the ski season and peak-revenue periods such as Christmas week that the resort has the most to lose -- as much as $600,000 to $900,000 per day.

Jay Peak's business-critical systems include lodging systems, systems that produce electronic keys for guests, POS systems, ticketing systems and systems that run the resort's ski rental and lessons operation.

"Those are things we can't live without for very long," Russell said.

IT resilience via cloud DR

As Jay Peak has grown as a business, its data has increased as well, which the resort initially backed up to tape and, later, with a disk-based backup system. The IT team set a regimen of nightly backup sessions. In the event of a disaster, recovery time could span a day and a half or longer.

I'm more concerned with bad actors -- malware and ransomware.
Craig RussellIT manager, Jay Peak Resort

"Restoring from disk … was a long process," Russell said.

The resort decided to replace its on-premises backup system with a cloud-based disaster recovery (DR) offering from Zerto, based in Boston. The vendor's Zerto Virtual Replication product replicates production workloads and automates their recovery, using public clouds such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure.

In Jay Peak's case, the resort is employing Azure in conjunction with Zerto Virtual Replication. The main reason: Zerto Virtual Replication provides bidirectional replication, which means applications can be recovered to and from Azure, according to Zerto. Russell said that replication feature makes failing back into the resort's primary environment a much simpler process than it would have been with AWS. A similar feature isn't available for AWS.

A failback takes place when an application is restored to its primary environment after it had been transferred to a secondary machine during failover.

The Zerto Virtual Replication rollout began in August 2017. The resort is currently backing up 24 virtual machines out of its total population of 70 VMs, focusing on those supporting the most critical applications as part of its IT resilience plan. Russell said the plan is to purchase more licenses in spring 2018 so it can back up a total of 40 VMs.

Paul Sullivan, territory account manager at EchoStor Technologies, an IT services provider that helped with the Jay Peak installation, said the resort's cloud-based DR approach answered the resort's need for a cost-effective plan. He said smaller organizations simply lack the budget to build and equip their own disaster recovery site.

In addition, the cloud offering let the resort control its own disaster recovery environment with respect to deciding when to failover to the cloud and when to failback from that environment.

"Microsoft Azure proved to be the perfect spot for them to create that second site," Sullivan said.

Such cloud-based DR methods are becoming increasingly popular in light of frequent ransomware outbreaks, which can lock businesses out of their data through encryption. Consultants recommend organizations maintain snapshots of their data in the cloud for ready access in the event of a ransomware attack.

Cloud backup metrics

The cloud-based approach to IT resilience will minimize core systems' data loss at Jay Peak. Instead of losing a day or more of data in a disaster, the resort will lose only a few seconds of data, Russell said. Zerto Virtual Replication uses asynchronous replication which is less expensive than synchronous replication but results in a lag between the time data was stored on the primary environment and the time it was backed up in the secondary environment. Russell said that lag is about three to five seconds.

As for recovery time objectives, tests at Jay Peak show that critical VMs can recover in less than three hours -- as opposed to days.

"That is a game-changer from a business standpoint," Russell said.

This was last published in December 2017

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Products such as Zerto Virtual Replication provide cloud-based DR. What do you see as the key benefits and drawbacks of this approach to IT resilience?
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