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Why are so many companies turning to cloud-based DR products?

Disaster recovery is expensive and complex, making many companies reluctant to formulate a cohesive strategy. Can cloud-based DR products change that?

Disaster recovery is seldom, if ever, at the top of management's wish list. The application is expensive, the process is complex and the payback is nebulous, the opposite of what executives look for in new projects. "Only about half of all organizations have put complete DR plans in place," said Phil Goodwin, a research director at IDC. Recent advances in virtualization and cloud have made the application an easier sell, but disaster recovery will never be a rubber stamped project.

Traditionally, businesses relied on on-premises-based offerings for disaster recovery (DR). Here, a firm establishes backup data centers supported by DR products like VMware Virtual SAN, VMware vSphere Replication and VMware Site Recovery Manager.

This approach has been expensive: Companies had to install backup data centers that sat idle unless a catastrophe occurred. Also, devising and testing DR scenarios requires a great deal of time and effort.

Consequently, the payback has been hard to justify. "After 9/11, IT expected C-level execs to be much more willing to sign off on DR projects," Goodwin stated. "These projects lasted longer in the approval process but often still failed to make the final cut." Executives are much more comfortable funding a project that provides a definite small payback in a year or two rather than a large return delivered on an unspecified date.

Changing the business case calculus

IDC found 9% growth of on-premises DR products in 2016. Cloud-based DR products are doing even better at 20.4% growth in 2016, according to IDC.

A couple of factors are changing the payback metrics. First, IT systems have become more integral to business operations. Downtime has become less tolerable, and many corporations would go out of business if they were offline for an extended period of time. As a result, firms are investing more in their DR products: IDC found 9% growth of on-premises DR products in 2016.

Cloud-based DR products are doing even better at 20.4% growth in 2016, according to IDC. Virtualization and cloud have made it easier for businesses to move workloads among different machines. In addition, cloud services run on shared infrastructure, so the DR infrastructure investment drops, and the vendor can pass the savings along to customers.

Also, suppliers offer customers more flexibility. Enterprises sign up for services for all of their applications or only for select ones and use the DR services as needed.

Testing is another plus. Because it was such a complicated process, firms usually tested their DR plans sporadically, once or maybe twice a year. With cloud, businesses are able to test more regularly because they do not have to spend time setting up the infrastructure.

Competing for buyers' attention

The high growth attracted healthy competition. Horizontal cloud suppliers such as Amazon Web Services, iland, IBM, RapidScale and Verizon, as well as DR specialists, including Axcient, Bluelock, EVault, Net3 Technology, Quorum, SunGard, Unitrends, Windstream and Zerto, compete in this market.

VMware offers VMware vCloud Air Disaster Recovery. "The VMware solution works well when a customer has a fully virtualized environment but in some cases, businesses still have applications that run on nonvirtualized systems," Goodwin said.

No easy fix

However, the cloud services are not a panacea. In some cases, they may not be available if a catastrophic disaster occurs. It does not make sense for suppliers to build data centers that mimic their customers' infrastructure, so they take a shortcut. Instead, they build data centers that can handle a limited number of outages. Theoretically, a business should be able to recover its system if it encounters a site specific problem, say an electrical outage in its data center. However, if a major disaster -- natural or manmade -- occurrs, then there may not be enough room at the service provider to run every company's DR applications. The client finds that out only when the disaster occurred, so some risk comes with using cloud-based DR products.

In addition, enterprises view their DR needs too narrowly. "There is a difference between IaaS and DRaaS," Goodwin said. In the former, the customer receives data center hardware and networking capabilities. However, the organization needs more to get itself up and running after a catastrophe. The business also has to make backup applications and data available to workers and have procedures in place so employees understand how to invoke the backup solutions and get themselves back up and online.

A few hidden hiccups

Cloud lowers deployment barriers but does not eliminate them completely. Cost can be an issue. For instance, vendors include a variety of testing options with their services. In a few cases, they offer unlimited testing, but in other instances, it is similar to traditional services: The more tests conducted, the higher the fee.

Because of cloud, the corporate DR business case is becoming stronger. However, DR will probably never be a feature found in all corporate applications. Companies may put DR plans in place for mission critical services and leave the others subject to chance.

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