Cloud computing has attracted a lot of interest over the past 18 months. Almost any function of IT can now be delivered from the cloud, as a service or on a ‘pay as you go’ basis. However, just because you can move systems to the cloud, does that mean that you should?
Business continuity and disaster recovery are areas where moving over to cloud computing can help reduce housing providers’ costs. In the past, business continuity involved one of three options: tape, disk or doing nothing. The latter involves trusting to the resilience of IT assets as they are and, while servers and desktops have been getting more reliable over time, there is still a significant risk to companies from losing data and the cost of replacing information.
Tape is the traditional method that most companies have used to protect their data, copying files and system images to a physical tape and then taking this off-site at the end of the day. While it is well understood and fairly cheap, tape does have issues around set-up and long-term management, as well as around the time it takes to recover and the potential loss of data.
The next option is disk-to-disk replication which involves copying data from one set of disks to another, either within the building or at a remote location. While this reduces the risk of lost data, it doesn’t provide a mechanism for recovering a system.
These approaches would be owned and managed by the organisation itself, and require a level of spending to support them. Where cloud computing can help is by providing the same level of protection as disk replication, as well as a method of recovery, but without the company having to handle the system itself.
What does this look like in practice? Well, the company’s servers would still be backed up and protected, but a third party is responsible for the technology and how the data is replicated over to the secondary location. In the event of a failure, the third party takes care of getting the company back on its feet again by providing its data back to it.
Using the cloud for business continuity can offer more value to companies as workloads don’t just need to sit ‘in the cloud’ until a disaster strikes. For example, testing updates and changes can be done on copies of the company’s servers in the cloud without affecting production systems. However, the best way for companies to reduce potential downtime is by using the cloud to run machines during a failure.
Rather than relying on the service provider to courier a tape or DVD with system images on it, the organisation can run up-to-date server images in the cloud while the problem is dealt with. Users can connect to the same applications and data that they would normally work with, and then go back to the production systems as they come back online.
According to Gartner Research, this ‘recovery-as-a-service’ approach is due to attract a lot of interest from companies of all sizes. The analyst has said that 30 per cent of all firms will move their business continuity to this model by 2014 as it offers better support at a lower cost than owning all the IT equipment involved.
One caveat is that the organisation has to be comfortable about handing its data to a third party. If this information is either commercially-sensitive or contains sensitive data on individuals that should not leave the company’s control then using the cloud for business continuity may not be suitable.
While you can set up service level agreements and contracts, the truth is that using a public cloud provider will involve you handing data over with very little or no control on where it is hosted next. If you are looking at a hosting provider or smaller cloud operator with operations in only one country, then this might be suitable, but it would require a real evaluation and discussion of the legal responsibilities. In these situations, there may be some applications and data that can be moved to the cloud, while others have to remain on-site.
The other main challenge to cloud recovery is that the cloud service has to support the applications, data and operating systems that you already have in place. Any service has to fit around you, rather than the other way around. This means that any replication tool has to support Windows and Linux operating systems, as well as physical and virtual servers, so that everything can be managed as part of the same service.
The goal for the cloud is to support customers in meeting their IT needs faster and more efficiently than these companies can do on their own. By stripping out the management overhead, housing providers should be able to get better business continuity at a lower cost.
Ian Masters is the sales director for UK & Ireland at Vision Solutions.