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Is business continuity becoming cloudier?

01 Sep 2010

Here’s a simple solution to your business continuity (BC) challenges: shift your entire IT infrastructure to the cloud. BC job done? As they say in the beer commercials, "Yeah right”.

With infrastructure, platforms and applications all available as online services at highly competitive rates, companies have a range of options outside the traditional dedicated data centre approach to BC. Moving your infrastructure and applications to the cloud has the potential to lower the costs of your BC, speed up your ability to stand-up systems after an incident, and make it easier for staff to access systems through a browser.

So is the cloud the ‘killer app’ for BC? It is more a useful addition to the range of options available to a CIO when designing their BC strategy. It has also made it possible for a wider range of organisations to implement effective BC rather than pay lip service to something they saw as too hard and too expensive.

For a CIO, BC has always been, and will continue to be, a trade-off between budget availability and your organisation’s appetite for risk. The difference now is that there is a wider range of options for providing back-up to your core systems. The risk versus expense equation still exists; there are just more levels to it.

Larger enterprises are not typically going to the cloud for BC yet. For one, there is too much effort and complexity in switching apps to the cloud. Risks around dependence on a sometimes unreliable network infrastructure and putting critical business data in third party hands are also relevant. What the cloud phenomenon has delivered to CIOs is a proliferation of data hosting service providers, offering more flexibility around data hosting and backup options for their existing core systems.

So how do you get the right data hosting service for your BC? In our experience 90% of the effort in a typical BC project is in the analysis and design of the solution. The implementation and testing is relatively simple. Understanding the business drivers that dictate what hosting, or mix of hosting, will be required is the key.

What amount of data loss is sustainable? Does it have to be real-time, or is daily sufficient? Have you classified and isolated the key business applications required in a disaster situation? What level of investment can you make? What is the detailed value equation – hundreds of thousands for effective hosting traded off against losses in direct revenue, reputation and staff loyalty?

The great advantage for a typical CIO today is that there is such flexibility. Clients we talk to are looking at all kinds of strategies, including a sort of reverse backup process, where primary systems are hosted in a data centre and then backed up in-house, reducing the overall cost of management but retaining ultimate control and peace of mind.

So if your strategy dictates use of hosting in a third party data centre, how do you select the right provider? There are industryaccepted standards like the US-based Telecommunications Industry Association’s four-tier classification. It ranges from the simple server room option in Tier 1, through to the Tier 4 that is designed for highly mission-critical systems that can withstand anything bar nuclear attack.

Within these tiers there are myriad factors that can be analysed in detail by your technical and commercial teams: from resiliency standards, power strategies, access controls, facility location and uptime statistics, to the level and quality of their service level agreements. Then there are curly little issues like the sovereignty of server locations. What laws apply to data where your servers are located, if outside NZ?

Traditional factors like market credibility and track record also count for a lot in data centre providers. Social media’s pervasiveness means it is very hard for companies to get away with delivering poor customer experiences — online due diligence will quickly turn it up.

Skill mix is also key. Different tiers of data hosting services not only offer different levels of technology and protection; they also have varying levels of technical skill and knowledge. This ranges from basic server management, through to managing infrastructure, through to handling specific application servers. Many offer a vanilla service, but it is much harder to get end-to-end service.

To have an effective BC strategy you can’t afford to have seams between your data hosting provider and your end-user applications. An internal or external provider must have an overview of the whole process, and be willing to take responsibility for it. Driven by the rise of cloud computing, data hosting has become a commodity business, with a broad range of providers and service mixes. Finding and analysing the right provider is relatively straightforward; the secret of success is spending the time and effort on defining your business’s needs for BC.

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