Extending Business Continuity beyond the Data Center with Application Availability

Application availability is critical in an always-on world in which businesses compete.

By Rob Ciampa, Vice President of Marketing, Marathon Technologies

Throw out your clock. Customers, prospects, and partners don’t care what time it is. Orders and opportunities won’t wait. Companies that are inaccessible or unresponsive will almost certainly become irrelevant. Application Availability is key in the always-on, 24x7 world in which businesses compete.

Information systems have a direct bearing on an organization’s accessibility. Corporate culture sets operational tone, but the technology used to attract, satisfy, and grow its customer base is what puts policies and procedures into practice. The availability of applications ranging from marketing and sales force automation to CRM, order-to-cash, and supply chain management can make or break an enterprise.

Application availability -- the discipline of employing best practices to enable continuous, end-to-end, uninterrupted access to the systems and software -- is a cornerstone of effective business continuity planning because it uses technology to guarantee uninterrupted, continuous access to the databases, servers, and systems that power business. The time has come to view application availability as a strategic requirement.

This article explores the market forces propelling the adoption and evolution of business continuity planning, the technology foundation that underpins and operationalizes business continuity, and best practices for effectively creating an always-on enterprise.

Business Continuity Challenges

Business continuity planning is a strategic process which, if thoroughly developed and implemented, ensures that critical business functions and information will be available to customers, partners, suppliers, regulators, and other constituents even in the wake of the adverse circumstances or events.

Disaster recovery (DR) and the data center have been the traditional IT focal points of business continuity planning. The data center and concern for the remote or off-premise availability DR addresses is only part of the equation. Organizations should be even more concerned about local availability. After all, IT availability is at risk from mundane problems such as NIC failures or power surges more than it is from natural catastrophes.

For business and IT leaders, the challenge is to satisfy this growing need with fewer resources, manage more complex systems, and comply with increasing regulation. Exacerbating these conditions is that as risks to business continuity increase, so does the potential for disruptions -- perhaps even more so. Astute organizations embark on business continuity planning and management to mitigate exposure to disruptions in business operations, regardless of the type or severity of the event, such as a server crash, network outage, power loss, fire, or hurricane.

Larger enterprises are better equipped to identify and quantify the potential business impact risk, but many of those efforts still remain more focused on the data center due to staffing constraints and historical concentration of IT resources. The challenge is that today’s operational infrastructure goes well beyond the walls of the data center to include remote sites, small offices, branch offices, distribution facilities, manufacturing plants, and other non-corporate facilities -- and that’s a business continuity challenge.

IT Operations are Different Outside Your Data Center

What’s behind the face of today’s always-on organization? An abundance of operational components, including human and electronic processes as well as interactions and transactions among departments and third-party partners and suppliers.

Business continuity requirements for remote sites are all very different than the data center. Challenges include:

  • Staffing levels: Organizations struggle to maintain the appropriate staffing levels to meet today’s 24x7 requirements; it’s far worse outside the data center
  • Location: Non-data-center locations are frequently located outside of mainstream markets and metropolitan areas, which may impede the ability to respond to incidents in a timely manner
  • Exposure: Because of location, susceptibility to other issues (such as crime or natural elements) increases
  • Number of sites: For each additional non-data center site, the probability of an IT failure goes up significantly because there are more locations and therefore more resources to manage

Today, sites outside the data center are taking a more active role in order flow, customer service, manufacturing, and overall business operations. Downtime at a remote site may mean downtime for the business.

Expanding Business Continuity beyond Your Data Center with Application Availability

Because of organizational interdependencies, a business continuity framework that only addresses data center concerns is an incomplete model and one that will likely put firms at more risk. Retrofitting a data center business continuity framework to a remote site won’t work either because there are different human resource, plant, facility, and environmental risks at play. We need to do something different.

Application availability is a catalyst for continuity. It brings once-disparate availability approaches into a unified framework that proactively keeps systems running. It leverages advances in technology and should be part of your initial and ongoing planning processes, not just after an outage. The following section lays out the requirement that should be part of your framework.

Creating a Framework through Application Availability

How do we distill our business continuity model to address needs beyond the data center? Here are six things you can do right now.

Minimize error-prone human intervention: Manual response to any break in continuity potentially introduces additional risk, which may include information loss or increased recovery time, neither of which is desirable. Use technology to support continuity.

Take inventory: What needs to be protected? How is it protected? Where is it? This institutional knowledge is often embedded in a single person’s head who may not be available when a crisis occurs. Know what you have and document it.

Introduce redundancy: Things often break at the worst possible time. Single points of failure are extremely impactful outside the data center. Recent advances in availability leverage redundancy, but there are two forms: fault tolerance and high availability. The former prevents the outage, the latter permits an outage, then recovers from it. All high-availability solutions have a recovery risk; fault tolerance does not.

Test, test, test: Too many organizations put massive efforts into business continuity and don’t test it. The result is business disruption. Failure to test is a surefire way to ensure that further availability initiatives won’t be funded.

Plan for prevention, not recovery: Technology now allows you to prevent failures, not just recover from them. It’s like driving an automobile: it’s better to avoid an accident than deal with the consequences.

Match responses to events: Failover to a hot site in the event of a localized disk failure is an example of the wrong response that actually introduces more risk. Use fault tolerance for local failure and DR for catastrophes. That’s the essence of application availability.

Summary

The 24x7, always-on business environment places increasing burdens on organizations and their business continuity models. Increasingly disparate areas of operation outside the data center only exacerbate the demands of keeping systems (and businesses) running non-stop. Unfortunately, reapplication of traditional business continuity methods is less than effective at ensuring end-to-end protection.

Application availability, an integrated, technology-driven, end-to-end operational framework, is the vehicle for seamlessly extending business continuity beyond the data center. It addresses the unique demands of remote sites while ensuring data-center availability. When fully automated, it blends local protection with disaster recovery to proactively keep application going, regardless of impactful events. Computing is assured. Data is assured. Business continuity is assured.

Rob Ciampa is vice president of marketing at Marathon Technologies, a software company that specializes in application availability solutions (fault tolerant and disaster recovery software) for Microsoft servers and applications. You can contact the author at info@marathontechnologies.com