What are the main steps in IT disaster recovery?

IT disaster recovery involves restoring technology infrastructure and systems after a natural or human-induced disaster. The goal is to enable the organization to continue or resume critical business operations as quickly as possible. The main steps in IT disaster recovery are:

Step 1: Conduct a Risk Assessment

The first step is to conduct a thorough risk assessment to identify potential threats, vulnerabilities, and the likelihood of various disaster scenarios. This allows an organization to prioritize risks and preparation efforts. A risk assessment examines internal and external threats such as natural disasters, cyber attacks, human errors, and equipment failures. It evaluates the potential business impact of various disaster scenarios.

Step 2: Develop a Disaster Recovery Plan

The next step is to develop a detailed disaster recovery plan based on risk assessment findings. This is essentially a roadmap of how to respond to a disaster scenario to restore systems and infrastructure. It defines roles and responsibilities, communication protocols, data and system backup processes, procedures to activate alternate sites/facilities, and business continuity procedures. The plan needs to consider scenarios of different severity and impact. It should be frequently tested and updated.

Step 3: Implement a Business Continuity Plan

A key component of disaster recovery is a business continuity plan. While disaster recovery is focused on restoring IT systems and infrastructure, business continuity ensures an organization can continue critical business operations during the IT recovery period. Business continuity activities include operating from an alternate site, work transfer to unaffected locations, accessing critical data and systems remotely, and providing alternate methods to serve customers. Business continuity plans also define crisis communication plans and procedures.

Step 4: Back Up Critical Data and Systems

One of the most crucial steps in preparing for any disaster scenario is maintaining backups of critical data, servers, systems, and software/applications. Backups can enable quick restoration of organization-wide or department-specific IT resources, applications, and information. Different types of backups and backup strategies should be implemented based on the criticality of data and systems. This includes onsite backups, offsite/cloud backups, full system images, incremental backups, etc. Backup schedules and retention policies must also be defined.

Step 5: Secure Infrastructure and Build Redundancies

IT infrastructure and data centers must be secured against potential hazards and threats. This includes measures such as flood protection, backup power sources, fire suppression systems, raised floors, wiring safeguards, access controls, and resilient networks. Building redundancies into infrastructure components also limits the impact of failures. Redundant internet links, redundant servers/storage, emergency power supplies, and backups across multiple locations improve recoverability.

Step 6: Define Emergency Response Procedures

Emergency response procedures need to be defined in the disaster recovery plan. This includes immediate response steps to secure facilities, protect infrastructure, evacuate personnel, assess damage, activate backup systems, isolate failures, mobilize technical resources, and initiate communication protocols. Procedures for orderly shutdown and startup of systems are also important. Responses need to be tailored to different types of disaster scenarios.

Step 7: Acquire and Stage Recovery Resources

The disaster recovery plan will necessitate certain equipment, supplies, software, documentation, and other resources for recovery operations. Administrators need to acquire and stage these resources at appropriate locations onsite or externally. Resources are selected based on risk analysis of potential failure points. Staged resources can include backup servers, spare parts, cabling, surge protectors, uninterruptible power supplies, external drives with backup data, system software discs, network diagrams etc.

Step 8: Train Staff and Conduct Drills

IT administrators, managers and other stakeholders must be thoroughly trained on various aspects of the disaster recovery plan. This includes specific response procedures for different scenarios and roles during crisis situations. Regular drills and exercises are essential to validate recovery procedures, familiarize staff with protocols, surface gaps, and continuously improve plans. Drills can range from tabletop discussions to company-wide mock disasters.

Step 9: Test and Refresh Backups Regularly

The viability of backups as part of a disaster recovery strategy depends critically on periodically testing backups and ensuring they can successfully restore systems and data. Testing identifies problems such as backup corruption, missing critical files, access issues, or incompatibility with current systems. Backup problems can then be addressed. Backups must be continually refreshed as new data is generated and as systems change.

Step 10: Maintain Service Agreements with Vendors

Maintaining service agreements with external vendors is advisable as part of disaster preparedness. This provides quick access to additional personnel, equipment, and capabilities for recovery operations on an on-demand basis after a disaster. Agreements for priority repairs, replacements, and service restoration should also be established with hardware/software vendors and utility companies.

Step 11: Monitor Threat Landscape Continuously

New threats emerge continuously, technologies evolve, business models change, and recovery strategies need to keep pace. Recovery planners must continuously monitor the threat landscape, periodically re-assess risks, and realign recovery strategies. Audit logs, security advisories, and technology forecasts provide valuable input to periodically update recovery plans.

Challenges in Disaster Recovery Planning

While comprehensive disaster recovery planning is critical, it poses some key challenges:

– Obtaining management commitment and budget can be difficult due to competing priorities.

– Complex organizational structures can complicate the planning process.

– Frequent technology changes make it difficult to keep plans current.

– Staff turnover impacts availability of trained resources during disasters.

– Unpredictable nature of disasters makes planning and reaction difficult.

– Sheer diversity of hazards and accident scenarios makes exhaustive plans difficult.

– Overdependence on vulnerable public infrastructure like electric grids.

– Lack of supply chain resilience makes timely replacement of damaged equipment problematic.

Best Practices for Effective Disaster Recovery Planning

Some best practices can help organizations create optimal disaster recovery plans:

Best Practice Description
Obtain executive buy-in Visible support from leadership ensures priority and participation across the organization.
Involve cross-functional teams Technology, operations, finance, facilities, HR and communications teams provide a comprehensive viewpoint.
Consult external experts External consultants provide an independent perspective to complement internal analysis.
Analyze dependencies Map dependencies between systems, resources, staff and suppliers to understand failure propagation.
Rank risks realistically Avoid downplaying risks and develop scenarios appropriate to the organization.
Test plans repeatedly Exercises and drills surface gaps in documentation, processes, infrastructure, and skills.
Automate where possible Automated failover and backup mechanisms are more reliable and accelerate recovery.
Update plans frequently Review plans at least annually and whenever environments or processes change significantly.
Educate staff regularly Ensure staff understand plans through continuous awareness programs.

Key Factors for Successful Disaster Recovery

Some key factors enable organizations to successfully recover from disaster events:

  • Comprehensive disaster response procedures defined and documented
  • Trained emergency response teams ready for prompt mobilization
  • Current data and system backups stored externally
  • Thorough infrastructure, network and application redundancy
  • Effective crisis communication plans
  • Offsite facilities equipped to restore operations
  • Ability to leverage vendor and partner resources quickly
  • Surge capacity through contracts with service providers
  • Public cloud capabilities for additional compute resources
  • Skilled staff cross-trained extensively on recovery tasks

Testing Disaster Recovery Plans

Disaster recovery testing exercises are critical for validating an organization’s capability to survive disruptions. Different testing approaches provide increasing levels of insight:

Checklist review

Validating that plans and documentation are complete through checklists and discussions.

Walkthrough drill

A tabletop exercise to step through disaster scenarios and recovery procedures.


Activating backup systems or establishing workarounds to mimic a disaster scenario.

Parallel testing

Operating primary and backup facilities simultaneously to validate alternate site capabilities.

Full interruption testing

Completely shutting down operational systems to test actual recovery procedures.

Vendor/supply chain testing

Testing support and delivery capabilities of vendors and suppliers.

Maintaining and Improving Recovery Plans

Disaster recovery plans need to be living documents that are continually maintained and enhanced. Some key activities enable this:

– Periodic risk re-assessment
– Testing and audit findings analysis
– Monitoring changes to business processes
– Incorporating technology upgrades
– Addressing identified plan gaps
– Documenting lessons from real incidents
– Measuring performance of activities
– Updating with regulatory changes
– Re-allocating emergency resources
– Training new employees regularly


Robust disaster recovery planning is crucial for organizational resilience when disruptions occur. The most effective plans are developed through a methodical approach of risk analysis, strategy formulation, comprehensive documentation, continuous testing, and updating. Disaster recovery capabilities require significant investment. But this is more than offset by reducing business impact and accelerating recovery when adverse events occur. With increasing technology dependencies and risk profiles, disaster recovery is a strategic necessity for organizational durability.