Cloud computing: Is it ready for disaster recovery?

Five issues to think about it you want to put your disaster recovery in the clouds

The marriage of disaster recovery to the cloud sounds like a powerful alliance. But just how ready are the new cloud DR services for the demands of the enterprise? Cath Everett reports.

Cloud-based disaster recovery (DR) services first started appearing at the end of 2009, which means that most are not even a year old. What's more, many of these should really be described as replication-as-a-service because they do not yet provide full DR capabilities.

That distinction means users can replicate data to servers located in a third-party provider's datacentre, but they cannot mirror their full systems, which include the operating system and applications. So, if disaster strikes, they would first need to rebuild systems manually before recovering data stored in the cloud.

Consequently, where take-up has occurred, it has mainly been among consumers or small businesses that use such services as a replacement for hard drives or tape storage.

The advantage here is that customers only pay for the capacity they use and do not have to maintain expensive storage vaults - or, for the less sophisticated, worry about having to take backup media home.

Larger organisations need to bear a number of considerations in mind before jumping into an emerging sector that is not yet for the faint-hearted.

Cloud DR issue 1. Immaturity of the market
Because of the immaturity of replication-as-a-service, few large or even mid-sized UK-based organisations have been willing to risk going down this route, not least because they are concerned about boxing themselves into a niche market stocked by relatively few vendors.

But although they consider such a move too risky today, they are still interested in DR in the cloud's potential. Such interest has led some to undertake proof-of-concept work with data generally from a single ring-fenced application.

To this end, they either employ services from dedicated vendors such as SunGard or use the replication services offered by infrastructure- or software-as-service companies as part of a broader recovery package after moving the application to the cloud.

Craig Armour, a senior manager in Deloitte's information and technical risk team, says conversations are taking place in organisations about proving the concept, testing the technology and understanding the weaknesses, value and benefits. "I'm not aware of anyone who's using it in anger - they're just testing it alongside other cloud services to see how it fits into their strategy," he says.

cloud computing

How ready is cloud disaster recovery for enterprise usage?
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As part of this activity, some organisations are even exploring whether they could move their production applications to the cloud altogether and save money on staff and infrastructure by transforming their existing datacentre into a smaller scale in-house DR facility.

But despite today's market immaturity, Armour believes that DR-based cloud services will mature at a faster rate than other nascent offerings such as enterprise-wide collaboration. Rather than the seven years posited by Gartner for the market to move into the mainstream, he believes for cloud-based DR, it is more likely to be five.

"Replicating data could be a key stepping stone to full DR in the cloud because it allows organisations to manage other DR challenges. Data is a big problem for many organisations so it could be a springboard when the cloud matures," he says. "It's also probably an easier one to deliver as it's almost compartmentalised as a solution and is reasonably clear and simple in terms of what you're trying to deliver."

Cloud DR issue 2. Limited application support and standards
Most cloud-based DR vendors provide infrastructure based on commodity Windows or Linux-based systems and databases. Consequently, these vendors may simply not be able to replicate data and update databases from older, non-web based and bespoke - or even Apple Mac - applications without developing a customised system.

But the problem with this approach is that it will inevitably wipe out the cost benefits associated with more standardised offerings.

Magnus Leask, IT director at sports marketing company Fast Track, says cloud-based DR is fine for commodity kit. "But we run major sporting events such as athletics for the BBC and our systems are nearly all bespoke so we'd struggle to find a provider that could cater to all of our requirements," he says.

Fast Track explored whether to employ cloud-based DR services to protect...