Disasters are uncommon, but when they do happen, the consequences can be catastrophic.
During an emergency, normal IT operations such as data processing, communication, virtualization, and network and data center management are disrupted.
For instance, according to the US National Archives & Records Administration, 93% of firms that lose their computer systems for 10 days or more will file for bankruptcy within 12 months.
In the event of a catastrophe, the goal is to be able to process and recover business workflows quickly and effectively without any interruption in service.
This article will serve as a guide on disaster recovery testing, including understanding what it is, the importance of the testing itself, goals, scenarios, techniques, types of tests, reports, and the best disaster recovery testing practices.
What is Disaster Recovery Testing?
Disaster Recovery Testing (DRT) is a process of validation that a business’s disaster recovery plan will work in the event an unforeseen emergency takes place. Disaster recovery testing is also known as DR Tests.
Now that you know what DRT is, your understanding can be improved even further by knowing precisely what it is not.
DRT vs BCP
Disaster Recovery Testing (DRT) is often confused with Business Continuity Plans (BCP). However, there are some important differences you should note.
A BCP explains to customers what a company must do to ensure that its products and services are accessible. A BCP is made up of a business impact analysis, risk assessment, and a comprehensive business continuity plan. It is validated using a company continuity test (BCT).
While many companies treat DRT and BCP as two distinct topics, others integrate them into their overall business continuity planning and testing. However, for the focus of this article, we will be treating them as two separate topics.
DRT vs DRP
Additionally, DRT is not the same as DRP (disaster recovery planning). DR testing occurs after DR plans have been created, but before they are put into practice. The goal of DR Testing is to help organizations understand how well their Disaster Recovery plan would work if an actual disaster were to occur.
Disaster recovery consists of both DR planning and testing. While each is essential, only testing gives an organization a true sense of how well their DR plan will actually work when it counts. This article will focus on the latter – DR testing.
Importance of Disaster Recovery Planning and Testing
The importance of using DRT is vital in helping companies identify strengths and weaknesses in the plan’s processes and staff members’ knowledge of those processes.
DRT is important for determining:
- The time it takes for applications and services to restart and begin operating and whether any functionality was lost
- How long system downtime will last
- If the company’s data could be deleted or manipulated by unauthorized personnel
- If security protocols can keep out attackers until IT personnel can get into the data center to deploy mitigations.
- If the issue is more complicated, DRT helps to identify where additional training might be required for staff members to ensure they can execute their DR tasks properly.
Enterprise companies often make the mistake of assuming DR plans are fine if they’ve never been tested. However, true disaster recovery testing can show whether a business’ continuity process is appropriate for its needs and effective at achieving its goals.
For example, a company might discover during tests that one remote office doesn’t have access to all necessary resources in the event of a disruption, which would require IT staff to manually email large files. If this were an issue that could easily be fixed (i.e., adding more servers), then it should be addressed before the business experiences a real-life disruption.
Disaster Recovery Goals
The goal of DRT is to understand if an organization is able to recover quickly and effectively from a disaster. Businesses need to ensure that, should a calamity strike, the plan will function.
The existence of a business’s disaster recovery website and IT systems going back up without significant downtime are both examples of this. Whether a firm uses cloud-based or onsite backup testing, DRT is able to show whether the backup is as foolproof as it needs to be.
All DRT needs to be undertaken with the following goals in mind:
- Ensure business continuity during disruptions
- Reduce unplanned outages
- Define roles and responsibilities for DR processes so that workers know what to do if a disruption occurs
- Make sure IT staff members are properly trained on how to implement/execute procedures related to their role in the plan.
- Be flexible enough to work under various circumstances (i.e. multiple scenarios)
Good DRT includes continuity testing programs. These involve regular tests (as system administrators should do anyway) to ensure that procedures will work as intended when they’re needed most.
It is important to understand where things could go wrong, to try to plan and prevent the worst-case from happening.
Disaster Recovery Scenarios
It’s important for organizations to identify all potential DR scenarios so they know what might happen during disruptions and how well their DR plan will work given those circumstances.
Some common DR scenarios would be:
- A fire breaks out at the primary data center
- The primary data center is inaccessible due to a natural disaster, such as a flood or hurricane
- A network equipment problem that leads to downtime and the need to reroute traffic
Identifying common DR scenarios can help organizations determine what risks they must address when creating their Disaster Recovery plan and which measures will be most effective in decreasing IT risk and increasing business continuity.
Disaster Recovery Testing Techniques
To better comprehend the qualities of the following techniques, it’s helpful to create a hypothesis about Disaster Recovery. This sort of solution assumes that essential business operations and data should be duplicated at a second location in order to guarantee system availability and security as well as business continuity.
When the main site is down for any reason, the secondary site will become operational. The three most common DR testing techniques include:
● Synchronous Replication
Synchronous replication is the process of distributing data and systems across two locations, both locally and at a secondary site. This form of technology ensures business continuity while also offering fast recovery. As a result, performance is significantly reduced due to the RTO/RPO threshold and is great for decreasing outages and assuring high infrastructure availability.
But there’s a geographic limit: the two locations cannot be located further than 100 kilometers from each other otherwise the synchronous couple becomes less effective and performance degrades.
● Asynchronous Replication
If the distance is a problem, you may use asynchronous replication to overcome it. There are no distance restrictions using this method, and it allows you to safeguard your company in the event of major calamities that might damage both locations (for example, an earthquake).
Furthermore, this option may be put into action via software without the need for sophisticated or expensive storage equipment and technologies.
● Mixed Technique
Lastly, the mixed technique is used to reduce recovery times, while also maintaining service availability in the face of increased calamities. It entails replicating systems with the synchronous approach on a nearby site and then making a second replication at a location further away.
Types of Disaster Recovery Tests
Testing is the only way to know whether an organization’s DR plan is appropriate for its needs and effective at achieving its goals. The three main DR tests are:
1. A Plan Review
This is when all stakeholders involved in the development and implementation of the DRP closely review and examine the plan to identify and eliminate any inconsistencies or elements that are missing from it.
2. A Tabletop Exercise
This exercise happens when all stakeholders involved in the business DR go through each step and component outlined in the plan. This ensures that each person involved knows what they need to do and how they need to do it in case of an emergency.
Additionally, it helps to further uncover inconsistencies, missing information, or errors that may have been missed in the plan review.
3. A Simulation Test
Simulating a catastrophe is an excellent approach to see whether the processes and resources – including backup systems and recovery sites – put in place for disaster recovery and business continuity function best in a scenario as close to reality as possible.
A simulation tries out a number of crisis situations to see if the teams involved in the DR process can restart technologies and company activities on schedule, even after significant external changes.
Once the testing is done, the most important information of DRT comes from analyzing the results.
Disaster Recovery Reports
System administrators should document all of their DR tests and report on the outcomes. This information can then be used to update a company’s disaster recovery plan and help administrators identify any gaps that need to be filled. For example, a test might show that a process isn’t working under certain circumstances, which would prompt system administrators to make changes.
In general, companies should aim for full transparency when it comes to their DR plans and tests. This allows them to identify strengths and weaknesses in both plans and processes. Allowing business leaders, board members, etc, access to the results from these tests also ensures they understand how well prepared a business is if a disruption occurs.
As with most IT functions, it is important that key stakeholders understand the best practices.
Disaster Recovery Testing Best Practices
While disaster recovery testing is designed to help minimize downtime during an adverse situation, they are only as good as their practices. This includes:
The ad hoc nature of the DRA test results due to staff turnover, upskilling, and hardware and software projects, in conjunction with the need to continuously monitor their effectiveness, necessitates frequent testing.
It is for this reason that DRT is recommended to be conducted at least twice per year as well as during other risk-related events such as vulnerability scanning or system updates.
Beyond testing in general, it’s important to run DR tests under various conditions. Businesses should conduct all significant business functions during testing because failure to do so can cause more disruptions than necessary.
For example, the next time a system administrator runs a DR test after restoring data from backup, they should also ensure that there aren’t any network problems between servers or if firewalls are up-to-date with patches.
In fact, system administrators should consider running DR tests during disruptions such as hurricanes or power outages, since those are the types of events they will likely face when their DR plan is needed most.
Prepare for the Worst
Organizations should determine what specific business processes are vital for keeping operations running during a disaster. Therefore, it’s important to prioritize systems based on their importance to Restoring Operations:
- Recovery Time Objective (RTO), or the length of time it takes to restore service after a disruption
- Maximum Tolerable Downtime (MTD), or the maximum length of time a critical business process can be down before revenue is negatively impacted
- Recovery Point Objective (RPO), or the point in time to which data must be restored after a disaster
For example, losing files that were created less than an hour ago may not have a significant impact on operations. But if those files were created two weeks ago and they cannot be reproduced, it’s likely an organization will see significant losses.
Improve DRT Communication
Ensure that staff members understand how their tasks affect critical processes before starting tests. This will ensure they understand what’s required during an actual disruption. Additionally, IT should consider setting up video surveillance to monitor employees’ actions during drills.
A good way to improve fair and open communication is to use vendor-provided tools for testing or use scripts developed by IT to check how staff members will perform in the event of a disruption.
Since every business function has an element of risk and/or cost, companies should proceed cautiously when determining which processes they will test. Failure to properly plan testing programs can cause more disruptions than necessary.
It is important to remember that the evaluation of the DR tests is not only to determine whether the plan is appropriate for current needs but anticipated future needs, too.
Recovering from disasters is one of the hardest things for companies to do. Disaster recovery testing plays an important role in ensuring that businesses can continue to run smoothly in the event of a disruption.
System administrators should develop and execute continuity testing programs on a regular basis, which will help them identify gaps in their disaster recovery plan and ensure they are ready for any type of situation that may arise.