What is disaster recovery?

Disaster recovery is a set of prearranged plans and procedures that allow a company to recover its IT infrastructure in the event of an unplanned disruption. It can be triggered in response to natural disasters such as fires and earthquakes, or might be the result of man-made accidents like broken water pipes or failed air conditioning units.

As a component of business continuity, disaster recovery focuses on ensuring critical technology services remain available or are restored quickly. Strategies focus on fast restoration of hardware, applications, and data, with the goal of minimizing overall impacts of a negative event. For example, disaster recovery solutions might be used to bring important systems back online, provide real-time replication of critical data, and replace lost or inaccessible devices. Whether handled in-house or through disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS) solutions, these strategies are essential to ensuring a company can continue to operate in the event of an emergency or failure.

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When do you need disaster recovery?

While “disaster” is often associated with worst-case scenarios such as hurricanes and tornadoes, there are many other non-extreme circumstances that can have large-scale implications if left unaddressed—all of which can occur without warning, at any time.

Human error, hacking, and hardware failure can all trigger the need for disaster recovery, as can software glitches, cyberattacks, and equipment failure. In each of these instances, having a plan in place to prevent data loss and minimize downtime will ensure business can continue as close to normal as possible. However, proper actions cannot be taken unless policies and procedures are prepared in advance.

How do you prepare for disaster recovery?

Preparing for disaster recovery starts long before an emergency hits. The process begins with a business impact analysis and risk assessment. These two steps are essential parts of the preparation process, since they help the business quantify financial and operational costs that are likely to be incurred should a disaster strike.

It’s best to conduct these evaluations during times of stability, when various stakeholders can devote time to thoroughly assessing how safety, security, compliance, and other key components may be impacted by various events.

When conducting a business impact analysis, stakeholders come together to detail a series of different disaster scenarios—and then predict the level of data loss and downtime that is most likely to ensue.

For example, the disaster recovery testing team might start by answering questions such as:

  • What will happen if a natural disaster causes the destruction of an entire physical facility?
  • Which teams will be prevented from doing their jobs if an outage occurs?
  • How will operations be impacted if a major storm were to hit headquarters?
  • Who will need to work from home if there’s a global pandemic—and how?

Addressing these and other “what if” scenarios allows the organization to identify critical business functions, calculate potential losses, and determine how much downtime could be tolerated before a major disruption ensues. This business impact analysis can then be used to determine the full scope of hardware, equipment, and IT resources that would be needed before the threshold is breached.

A second essential element of this analysis is conducting a risk assessment. By further evaluating the potential ramifications of an unplanned event, the business can identify specific hazards and network infrastructure vulnerabilities—and then prepare procedures to minimize any long-term damage.

Together, the results of both the business impact analysis and risk assessment can be used to inform a robust disaster recovery strategy. Since the goal is to recover business functions as quickly as possible, these preparation steps are key: They’ll help ensure the recovery process can be initiated without delay when necessary.

How does disaster recovery complement business continuity plans?

Disaster recovery is a critical component of business continuity planning. The latter focuses on keeping all aspects of a business operational in the event of an unplanned disruption and covers a range of variables: where employees will work, how they’ll be kept safe, who’s responsible for communications, and more. At the core of continuity is the need to provide uninterrupted access to technology so employees are empowered to continue business as usual. For this reason, disaster recovery is foundational to business continuity.

What is a disaster recovery plan—and what should it include?

A disaster recovery plan is a fully documented process outlining the specific actions that need to be taken to protect IT infrastructure, corporate resources, and employee devices—and to restore and maintain service so staff can get back to work as soon as possible. These are highly detailed plans with specific procedures on what should happen in the event of a disaster.

More specifically, most disaster recovery plans include several essential elements:

Inventory of assets: This is a prioritized list of company equipment and services that have the greatest impact on day-to-day operations, including physical hardware as well as digital assets. By listing these assets in order of priority, companies can ensure that the most important systems and services are recovered fast.

When identifying which IT assets support critical business activities, it’s also important to determine recovery point and recovery time objectives. Recovery point objective (RPO) refers to the “age” of data that will need to be recovered for business operations to resume successfully. For example, if the company decides on an RPO of three hours, data backups will need to take place at least every three hours. Recovery time objective (RTO) is the maximum amount of downtime a business can endure before file recovery needs to take place. If the business impact analysis reveals that major financial and operational repercussions would be felt within half a day, RTO can’t be any longer than four hours.

Designated roles: Another key component of many disaster recovery plans is the development of a clear decision-making hierarchy. Each member of the disaster recovery plan team has a specific set of responsibilities to carry out should a disaster occur, with backup personnel to ensure all needs will be covered. By assigning roles, companies can help prevent confusion and ensure people won’t have to wonder who’s responsible for carrying out various portions of the plan in the event of an actual emergency.

Contingency plans: Not every disaster will have the same impact on business systems and data protection processes. For this reason, it’s important to include different procedures for various events that could occur—whether it’s a global pandemic or day-to-day threats such as power outages and electrical fires.

Formal review process: For disaster recovery planning to be effective, it should be handled as an ongoing process—one that includes regular testing. Failing to regularly test the plan can put a company at risk of having outdated policies and procedures that are no longer relevant to current operations, or that don’t perform as required during a disaster. For example, major software updates would be a reason to update the plan, as would a new vendor. As a best practice, disaster recovery teams should create a schedule for regular reviews, tests, and updates.

Disaster recovery best practices

When preparing for disaster recovery, experts recommend keeping several best practices in mind.

1. Prepare essential teams well in advance.
When disasters occur, there’s very little time for assessment. In the most extreme cases, business operations are likely to stop altogether and will need to be either rebuilt or brought back online. For this reason, it’s imperative to prepare people ahead of time so they know what to expect and can act accordingly. At a minimum, employees should know where to go to stay safe, how to access systems, and what to prioritize once they begin to reconnect.

2. Make the most of cloud-based solutions.
While traditional disaster recovery allows companies to restore on-premises infrastructure, a faster and more flexible approach is to institute a cloud disaster recovery plan. This method relieves IT of the need for complex provisional needs, such as delivering new devices or maintaining a mishmash of interim software until normal operations can resume. Putting cloud storage and cloud-based technologies in place helps ensure employees can continue working after a disaster strikes—on any device, from any location. Additional benefits include lower costs, less on premises datacenter reliance, fast deployment, and ease of conducting regular disaster recovery testing. Examples of cloud disaster recovery components range from virtualization solutions (such as managed desktops) to cloud-based tools (such as file sync and sharing).

3. Commit to long-term disaster recovery solutions.
It's important to remember that effective IT disaster recovery is not the result of a one-time disaster recovery planning session, but instead involves a long-term commitment. Anticipated RPOs and RTOs can change as the business scales and grows, as can the types of disaster recovery service that may be needed should the company expand to new geographies. Regular reviews, ongoing testing, and frequent updates are all key.

Citrix solutions for disaster recovery

Citrix empowers employees to work securely from any location—on any device and network—both in times of stability and when disaster strikes. Citrix DaaS fits seamlessly into disaster recovery plans by giving people the flexibility to work from anywhere, all while keeping your apps and information secure.

Explore the benefits of disaster recovery planning with Citrix DaaS