Disaster recovery planning is an essential part of an organization’s overall risk management strategy. A disaster recovery plan outlines the processes and procedures an organization will follow to recover critical systems, applications, data, and other assets in the event of a disruption or disaster. Having a robust and tested disaster recovery plan in place allows an organization to minimize downtime and data loss in the aftermath of a major incident.
What is a disaster recovery plan?
A disaster recovery plan is a documented process for recovering IT infrastructure and systems after a natural or human-induced disaster. The plan identifies critical IT resources and outlines detailed procedures for recovering hardware, applications, data, telecommunications, vital records, and other essential assets.
A disaster recovery plan may cover some or all of the following elements:
- Priority list of critical systems and data to recover
- Detailed recovery procedures for each system/application
- Testing schedule and procedures to validate the plan
- Staff roles and responsibilities during recovery
- Contact information for staff, vendors, and other stakeholders
- Offsite backup location for data and system images
- Hardware replacement procedures
- Alternative work locations once systems are recovered
Disaster recovery plans are tailored to the organization and take into account their size, resources, staff, and tolerance for downtime. Plans may be as simple as a few pages or very extensive documents, depending on the complexity of the IT environment.
Why have a disaster recovery plan?
There are several compelling reasons why an organization should take the time to develop, document, and test a disaster recovery plan:
- Minimize downtime: Following established recovery procedures allows critical systems to be restored in a timely manner.
- Meet compliance requirements: Some regulations and standards require a tested disaster recovery plan. This includes PCI DSS, HIPAA, SOX, and others.
- Reduce data loss: Regular backups combined with offsite data storage can prevent permanent data loss.
- Ensure continuity: Being able to recover quickly from a disaster minimizes disruption to business operations.
- Protect revenue: Outages and data loss can have significant financial costs in terms of lost transactions, sales, and productivity.
- Manage risk: Disaster recovery planning evaluates risks and implements measures to counter those risks.
Given today’s reliance on IT systems and digital information, organizations that fail to plan for disasters are courting trouble. Taking a proactive approach and having a recovery plan in place demonstrates due diligence and reduces exposure to catastrophic data loss.
Key elements of disaster recovery planning
Developing a robust disaster recovery plan involves assessing risk, analyzing requirements, documenting processes, and testing procedures. Key elements of effective disaster recovery planning include:
Business impact analysis
The first step in disaster recovery planning is performing a business impact analysis (BIA). This process identifies the organization’s most critical systems and sets recovery time objectives (RTOs) for each system. A BIA evaluates potential financial, operational, and legal impacts of extended system outages.
Once critical systems and allowable outage times are known, specific recovery requirements can be developed for each application/system. This includes networking, hardware, software, backups, data files, and interfaces with other systems.
Detailed procedures are documented for recovering critical technology infrastructure, including step-by-step technical recovery instructions tailored to different types of disasters. Procedures should be practical and easy to follow when executed under pressure.
Testing is essential to validate that recovery procedures are accurate, complete, and meet RTOs. Testing also helps identify gaps in the plan. Disaster recovery testing methods include tabletop exercises, walkthroughs, simulations, and full end-to-end testing.
A sound backup strategy is the foundation of any disaster recovery plan. Backups provide the data needed to restore systems without data loss. Best practices include performing full and incremental backups, encrypting backups, and storing backup media offsite.
Many disaster recovery plans designate alternative facilities to provide IT infrastructure in the event the primary location is inaccessible. Options include relocation to an owned secondary site, space at a leased hot site, or use of cloud-based failover capabilities.
How does disaster recovery planning relate to business continuity planning?
Disaster recovery planning and business continuity planning are closely aligned. However, there are some key differences:
- Business continuity focuses on sustaining critical business operations and functions during and after a disaster.
- Disaster recovery focuses specifically on the IT systems, infrastructure, and data required to support critical business processes.
- Business continuity takes a broader view and includes relocation of staff, external communications, supply chain logistics, and other concerns beyond just IT recovery.
- The disaster recovery plan is a key component and input to the overall business continuity plan.
In some organizations, business continuity planning and disaster recovery planning are handled by the same team using an integrated approach. In others, they are viewed as separate but complementary initiatives.
Best practices in disaster recovery planning
There are a number of best practices organizations should incorporate into their disaster recovery planning process:
- Get executive buy-in and sponsorship
- Involve stakeholders from various departments
- Conduct a thorough business impact analysis and risk assessment
- Define recovery time objectives for each system
- Prioritize recovery of Tier 1 critical systems and data
- Document detailed recovery procedures
- Test the plan frequently through simulated disasters
- Integrate disaster recovery with business continuity planning
- Review and update the plan regularly
- Keep copies of the plan offsite
- Train staff on their disaster recovery role
Following best practices reduces risk, improves recovery readiness, and makes actual disaster recovery smoother and more effective.
Challenges in developing disaster recovery plans
While disaster recovery planning is crucial, it is not always easy to accomplish. Some common challenges include:
- Lack of budget – Proper disaster recovery requires technology investment and resources.
- Lack of staff – IT departments are often understaffed and struggle to take on additional projects.
- Complex IT environment – Large or highly decentralized IT environments make DR planning difficult.
- Dependence on legacy systems – Older platforms may have limited built-in DR capabilities.
- Lack of executive support – DR planning needs championing by leadership as a priority.
- Compliance gaps – Weak compliance programs fail to enforce DR planning standards.
- Infrequent testing – Lack of testing causes plans to become outdated.
Despite the challenges, investing the time and resources into disaster recovery planning yields substantial benefits in protecting the organization from potentially devastating consequences.
Should disaster recovery plan be part of risk management?
Yes, a disaster recovery plan should be a fundamental component of an organization’s overall risk management strategy. There are several reasons for this:
- Disasters that impair IT systems are among the highest risks faced by companies dependent on technology.
- The consequences of prolonged downtime and data loss can threaten business viability.
- Regulations require technology recovery plans as part of operational risk management.
- Disaster recovery planning directly mitigates technology-related risks.
- Testing disaster recovery exposes gaps in technology risk protection.
- A DR plan demonstrates due diligence in operational risk management.
In most organizations, disaster recovery planning falls under the oversight of the risk management function. Risk managers take an enterprise view of threats, ensuring all significant risks are addressed across the areas of financial, strategic, operational, and hazard risk. As IT systems become more complex and business-critical, disaster recovery is increasingly being integrated into enterprise risk management programs.
How can organizations improve disaster recovery planning?
There are several steps organizations can take to maximize the effectiveness of their disaster recovery planning:
- Allocate sufficient budget for disaster recovery tools and activities.
- Hire staff with expertise in business continuity and disaster recovery.
- Educate management on the benefits of disaster recovery planning.
- Perform comprehensive business impact analysis and risk assessments.
- Prioritize disaster recovery efforts based on system criticality.
- Implement modern data backup and disaster recovery solutions.
- Establish an alternate processing site for disaster recovery.
- Document disaster recovery procedures thoroughly and clearly.
- Test failover and recovery processes regularly.
- Integrate disaster recovery procedures with incident response plans.
- Review and update disaster recovery plan annually.
By taking purposeful steps to mature their disaster recovery capabilities, organizations can efficiently protect critical IT infrastructure and data from disruption.
Disaster recovery planning is an essential element of enterprise risk management and business continuity. Documented disaster recovery procedures and testing enables the rapid restoration of technology systems needed to support time-sensitive business functions and meet recovery time objectives. While developing a disaster recovery plan requires resources, the long-term benefits of reduced risk and minimized downtime outweigh the costs exponentially. Organizations that invest in robust disaster recovery capabilities demonstrate prudence in protecting critical IT assets and customer data from harm.