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How to set disaster recovery plans for remote offices, branch offices

Learn how to effectively incorporate remote/branch offices into your established disaster recovery plans with tips and advice from one of Forrester's DR analysts.

Hi, I'm Kristen Caretta, associate editor for SearchCIO-Midmarket.com. I'm here today at Forrester with Stephanie Balaouras, one of Forrester's principal analysts. Stephanie will be talking to me about disaster recovery in remote and branch offices.

:14: If a company already has a strong disaster recovery plan in place, how do they make that work effectively in their remote offices and in their branch offices?
Balaouras: One of the challenges with DR is that you have to make DR plans localized. So if that remote office is in another geographic region, they need to have local DR plans that address the risks for their region. You know, because it's not going to be the same potentially as the corporate location.

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Disaster recovery plans for remote offices, branch offices
I mean, you do need to have the stuff in place for the usual stuff -- power failures, IT failures, human error -- but you know, maybe the remote office is in an area that's at high risk for certain types of natural disasters. And actually, interestingly enough, when I ask most companies what their biggest challenge is for DR, it's not technology at all -- it's people or process. So how do you develop effective plans, how do you keep the plans up to date, how do you test them, how do you coordinate with individuals, how do you keep everybody to a consistent plan, template and format and consistency and thoroughness. So the remote office is gonna have to also document the plans, test the plans, keep those plans up to date. And DR is more than just data backup and data replication: You've got to think about how you actually restore the actual applications themselves.

And then the piece that people often forget about is people and communications. If something actually hits that remote site, probably not a problem to restore the data and restore the applications, but you've got to figure out a way to get those people back to work. Are they going to show up at an alternate location? Are you going to assume that people are going to work from home with SSL and VPN technologies? You also need a way to do emergency communication, which is when the event actually happens, how do you blast out information to tell people, "Don't come to work, go here instead, this is when we expect you back at work." And you also want two-way communication to make sure everyone is OK, and you also want their updated contact information if they've gone someplace else, other than home.

2:07: What critical steps are midmarket CIOs taking to incorporate their remote offices or branch offices into their DR strategy?
Balaouras: It's always helpful to step back and do a business impact analysis.

I think we in IT, we always tend to focus on individual applications and we kind of lose site of the business process. So if you focus more on enabling the business and enabling certain business processes, like "What is everything I need for order to cash, financial accounting and reporting, supply chain?" You know, if you focus on the business process, it gives you much broader perspective as to all the resources, and resources could be people, they could be physical assets, it could be IT assets. That kind of helps if you take it from a process perspective.

I do think from a technology perspective, it does make a lot of sense to consolidate remote office backup recovery and DR to some sort of centralized model; that gives you the insight as to what's actually happening there. I think from the plan perspective, a lot of people are sort of deploying resources so that they can share plans globally. And it could be simple resources like company portals, internal company websites. Some companies are choosing to deploy software that will actually help you create and manage plans online. It's also helpful to have all your plans in one central repository that everyone can see. And it's also helpful if corporate actually mandates, OK, these are the key components of a plan, this is everything they expect to see in it, they actually audit it, they actually put mandates around testing and reporting as well.

3:46: How much should a midmarket CIO plan on spending when it comes to creating, maintaining, testing and updating these DR strategies for their remote and branch offices?
Balaouras: I mean, some of these backup services are actually pretty inexpensive. They can be just a few dollars per gig, per server, per month, and that will actually give you data protection. One way to determine how much you should spend is to take more of a risk assessment approach, which is you look at the remote office and you do a risk assessment. What are the threats that we're expecting -- power failures, natural disasters like hurricanes. You assign a probability to it, you determine the impact of the actual threat scenario, you annualize it and that's basically how much you should spend on disaster recovery for that particular location.

For example, if you used a remote office in the northeast U.S., if you expect every winter there will be at least three to four snowstorms of six to eight inches or more and that means like half of your employees aren't gong to show up to work, they're all salaried, you're going to have to pay them their salaries anyway, and they at least make $50,000 a year, and you know that's going to happen at least three to four times a year and you know it's going to cost you $200,000 to $300,000 automatically, every year. So you know that you should at least be willing to spend that much on any kind of remote access technology to make sure that everybody's working from home.

5:08: How can you optimize your systems and connections for your remote and branch offices for a good DR foundation? And further to that, if you don't have an IT person on site, how do you enforce these backup processes?

Balaouras: One option is that a lot of companies are actually just consolidating infrastructure from remote offices entirely. So if you're used to having standalone file servers, app servers, some local storage, completely eliminating that IT infrastructure, placing it all at the corporate data center and potentially using a WAN acceleration technology to facilitate better performance and access of your data and applications over the WAN. So that eliminates the need to do any kind of backup at all, because everyone is just accessing their information directly from the corporate data center.

But you still have the PC problem, so you still have to figure out how to back up PCs because you're not going to eliminate PCs. So some people actually go after remote office/branch consolidation. But a lot of offices feel a lot more comfortable actually having some amount of local infrastructure. So then the question becomes, how do you do the backup? So one way is actually you could turn to backup Software as a Service. You could just say, "We're going to pay somebody a subscription fee, and they're going to back up our PCs and servers for us." Which is great -- you don't have to deploy any infrastructure; you don't have to deploy any software. It's a fast ramp: You just call them up and say, "Here's how many PCs and servers I have," and they take care of it. It's automatically off-site; they encrypt it for you. So it's actually a great option.

The downside with backup Software as a Service, though, is restore. If you want to restore an individual file, no problem. If you need to restore, say, more than like 15 to 20 gigs of data, that becomes a problem over the Internet. So they'll actually restore your data to some sort of removable media and ship it to you so you're looking at a recovery time objective of 24 hours.

Another way to do it is by eliminating tape and deploying some sort of disk appliance, where you back up locally to disk and you do a secondary replication or a vault of the data back to the corporate data center. But I guess there's at least three to four ways to consolidate it, but that's the basic theme, consolidation. Basically eliminating the need for any kind of local IT staff to actually have to manage the backup process, providing the visibility and manageability back to corporate IT, who really has the concentration of resources, both in terms of technical skills as well as financial to just manage the backup.

7:40: What are some of the latest technologies available for these disaster recovery efforts that you've found in some of your research?
Balaouras: I do like the online services quite a bit. I mean, a lot of them started out as just online backup, like all they did was back up your data. But now what they're actually doing with virtual technology, is they actually have copies of your system images and they'll either a., actually host you in a virtual environment if you need to fail over to them; or b., they'll actually restore your images, restore your data and actually quick ship your servers to you.

I think these online services actually hold a lot of potential for the remote offices. I usually refer to them as online backup, or some of them now are actually called virtual disaster recovery services, so virtual DR or cloud-based DR. The idea that you're backing up or you're replicating to their site and not only do they have your data, they have your system images as well. If you want to keep it in-house, I do think technologies like deduplication are making a big difference because if you can back up locally to an appliance and you still have immediate access to your data for restores, that's great. But then when you need to vault that information back to corporate, because the data is deduplicated, you're only sending unique data segments back to corporate. That means you don't need a lot of bandwidth between the sites in order to facilitate that. You can get away with just having T1 connections in between you and corporate. So that helps quite a bit as well.

I think that anything online or in the cloud or virtual is huge. I think anything, either in software or in the appliance itself that deduplicates the data to disk and then lets you replicate it remotely is also a big help as well.

Stephanie, thank you so much for joining me today. For more information on disaster recovery in your remote or branch office, check back frequently at SearchCIO-Midmarket.com.

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