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The importance of distance in the disaster recovery planning process

George Crump discusses the role distance plays in the disaster recovery planning process and the tools that make replication over long distances easier than before.

It is nearly impossible to create the perfect disaster recovery plan, one that will work in every situation and...

meet all your recovery objectives. Instead, the disaster recovery planning process is ongoing and needs continual refinement. One area that we often see as a weakness is the relative distance between your primary data center and the DR location.

The proximity problem

It may seem like a DR site that's close by your primary data center is ideal. The cost of a high bandwidth, site-to-site connection is less within a metro area. It also makes testing easier, since you can leverage that same high bandwidth or simply drive across town to perform tests.

Convenience and cost are key factors, but it is important to remember that outages vary widely in severity. Depending on the nature of the disaster, a nearby site may provide adequate protection. For example, a crashed server or even a whole data center outage is far more common than widespread disasters such as a severe weather event or other region-wide natural disaster. However, a single regional event can do more to impact the long term viability of the organization, to the point of the organization closing its doors forever.

The regional outage reality

There are multiple issues that can impact your DR planning process, if your DR site is located within the same region as your primary data center. Number one, of course is the fact that the disaster itself also impacts your DR site. Even if your DR site is hardened, it will be operating under stressful conditions; for example, using diesel generators for power. Worse, it could be knocked out completely.

Second, the ability of your employees to access the DR site will be severely hampered, since the streets and public transportation routes are likely to be impacted.

Third, in a regional disaster employees tend to focus on their families before they worry about the organization, and rightfully so. This includes employees at the DR site, for example, if you are renting space in a colocation facility. Those employees may not be there to let your employees in if they do manage get to the location.

Also, many colocation facilities "oversubscribe" their capabilities. In a regional disaster this can cause significant issues, because many organizations will need access to the facility at the same time.

Developing a geographic recovery mindset

Because of these concerns it is critical that your disaster recovery location be a fair geographic distance from your primary data center. How far is far enough? A best practice is to make sure your DR site is at least two regions away. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Association, provides a map of the US that is broken into regions.

In larger countries like the US and Canada it is fairly easy to identify a DR location that is far enough away. In other countries, especially European countries, establishing distance can be difficult because of the size of the country and restrictive data sovereignty regulations. Until these regulations change, the best design for European organizations may be to establish two DR locations at opposite ends of the country in which they operate.

The tools for meeting a geographic recovery objective

The good news is that the tools to meet a geographic recovery objective (GRO) are significantly better than they used to be. Most storage systems today have native replication and some level of application access. If you have a second facility that is far enough away you could replicate to a second, similar storage system there.

There are also over a dozen third-party replication software utilities available designed to protect specific applications or operating environments like VMware. These applications often allow for any-to-any replication so that the storage devices at each site can be different.

Many of these applications take the process a step further and can replicate to a public cloud provider like Amazon, which can then replicate to multiple sites. These cloud providers will often allow you to start your applications in their cloud in the event of a disaster.

Distance is a critical component of any disaster recovery plan. Despite the advantage of a local disaster recovery location, the risks associated with having both your primary data center and your secondary data center struck by the same disaster are too great. In short, plan for distance in your disaster recovery planning process.

About the author:
George Crump is president of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on storage and virtualization.

Next Steps

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This was last published in January 2015

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It’s good to point out that a DR site should be located in a different region. I suspect that many companies have a DR plan, but the person or people that came up with that plan were not DR experts. That being the case, they may incorrectly think that having a DR site close to the primary site is acceptable because they have included cloud resources for backing up data. But the point remains that, in the event of a regional disaster, that DR site may be affected as well as the primary location, in which case all of that data doesn’t do the company any good.
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Yes, I was astonished to learn how many of the Manhattan firms that got flooded out a couple of years ago were still locating their NOCs in the same place because it was convenient or because the latency was less. Don't they learn?

I hope that when companies look for DR sites, that they look at the potential for natural disasters at the DR site as well. It doesn't do any good to protect yourself from a hurricane on the East Coast if you then get zapped by a tornado in the Midwest or an earthquake in California.
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