What is a Disaster Recovery Plan and How to Create One

By Joe Aucott
April 26, 2023
Server Room identified in a disaster recovery plan

Introduction to Disaster Recovery Plans

In today's increasingly digital world, businesses and organisations rely heavily on technology to manage their operations and store critical data. A single IT disaster can disrupt operations, cause significant financial losses, and even ruin a company's reputation. This is where a disaster recovery plan (DRP) comes into play. A DRP is an essential part of any organisation's overall risk management strategy, designed to ensure a quick and efficient response in the event of an IT disaster.

Disaster recovery planning involves creating a detailed and organised plan to handle various types of disasters that can affect IT systems, such as hardware failures, software glitches, data breaches, or even natural disasters like floods and earthquakes. A well-developed DRP can save a company's valuable data, minimise downtime, and help maintain customer trust and protect the organisation's bottom line. In this article, we will explore the concept of a disaster recovery plan, its importance, and its key components to help you better understand how to protect your organisation from potential IT disasters.

Types of Disasters that Affect IT Systems

Understanding the different types of disasters that can impact IT systems is essential for effective disaster recovery planning. Disasters can be broadly categorised into three main types: natural disasters, man-made disasters, and cyberattacks or security breaches.

Natural Disasters

Natural disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and fires, can cause severe damage to IT infrastructure, disrupt operations, and lead to data loss. While these events might be less frequent, their impact can be devastating for businesses that are unprepared. Organisations should assess their vulnerability to various events based on their geographical location to mitigate the risks associated with natural disasters and implement appropriate disaster recovery strategies.

Man-made Disasters

Man-made disasters include events like power outages, equipment failures, and human errors, which can lead to hardware and software malfunctions or data loss. These incidents are often unintentional but can still have significant consequences for an organisation's IT systems. Regular equipment maintenance, employee training, and thorough documentation of IT processes can help reduce the likelihood of man-made disasters.

Cyberattacks and Security Breaches

Cyberattacks and security breaches are becoming more frequent and sophisticated, constantly threatening organisations' IT systems. Cybercriminals may target businesses with ransomware attacks, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, or data breaches, which can result in financial losses, reputational damage, and legal repercussions. Implementing robust security measures, such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and regular security audits, is crucial to protect against these threats and ensure a strong disaster recovery plan.

How are Disaster Recovery Plans Used in the Real World?

Disaster recovery plans have proven invaluable in real-world situations, allowing organisations to recover from unexpected disasters and maintain their operations with minimal disruptions. In this section, we will discuss a real-life example of a disaster recovery plan being put into action during a natural disaster.

Case Study: Hurricane Sandy and Data Centres

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy, one of the most destructive storms in recent history, hit the eastern coast of the United States, causing widespread damage and significant power outages. Many businesses, including data centres, were affected by the hurricane, but those with comprehensive disaster recovery plans in place were able to mitigate the impact and quickly restore their operations.

One notable example is Datagram, a hosting and internet service provider with a data centre located in Lower Manhattan. As Hurricane Sandy approached, the company activated its disaster recovery plan, preparing backup generators and deciding to keep the facility operational. However, due to unprecedented flooding, the basement housing the generators was inundated, causing a total power loss to the data centre.

Despite this setback, Datagram's disaster recovery plan proved effective in other ways. The company had a multi-site strategy, with additional data centres located outside the affected region. This redundancy allowed them to redirect traffic and maintain service for their clients. Furthermore, Datagram's offsite data backups ensured that customer data was protected and could be quickly restored once power was restored to the Manhattan data centre.

The Hurricane Sandy example highlights the importance of having a comprehensive disaster recovery plan in place, which can make the difference between a swift recovery and prolonged downtime. This real-world case also emphasises the value of redundancy and offsite backups, as well as the need for organisations to consider and prepare for worst-case scenarios.

While it may be impossible to predict every potential disaster, a well-designed disaster recovery plan can help organisations respond effectively and maintain their operations even in the face of unexpected challenges. Regular review and updates to the DRP, alongside staff training and testing, are essential to ensure that businesses are prepared to face the real-world challenges posed by natural disasters, cyberattacks, and other potential threats.

Key Components of a Disaster Recovery Plan

Developing an effective disaster recovery plan requires careful consideration of several key components that address the specific needs and risks of an organisation. These components include:

Risk Assessment and Business Impact Analysis

A comprehensive risk assessment helps identify the potential threats to an organisation's IT systems and evaluate their likelihood and potential impact. A business impact analysis (BIA) is then conducted to determine the potential consequences of a disruption to critical systems, applications, and data. This analysis helps prioritise recovery efforts and allocate resources accordingly.

Recovery Objectives and Strategies

Recovery objectives are crucial in guiding the disaster recovery process. The two primary objectives are the Recovery Time Objective (RTO) and the Recovery Point Objective (RPO). RTO refers to the maximum amount of time an organisation can afford to be without its critical systems before facing significant consequences. RPO defines the acceptable amount of data loss that can be tolerated in case of a disaster. Based on these objectives, appropriate recovery strategies should be developed to meet the organisation's needs.

Disaster Recovery Team and Roles

A dedicated disaster recovery team should be established, consisting of members from various departments with clear roles and responsibilities. This team should include IT personnel, management representatives, and other key stakeholders. Clearly defined roles ensure a coordinated and efficient response during a disaster.

Emergency Response Procedures

Emergency response procedures outline the specific steps to be followed during a disaster to minimise downtime and ensure a quick recovery. These procedures should include details about initiating the disaster recovery plan, communication protocols, and escalation processes, as well as steps to restore critical systems and applications. Regular updates and reviews of these procedures are necessary to keep them current and effective.

Recovery Strategies and Technologies

Various recovery strategies and technologies are available to help organisations restore their IT systems and data in the event of a disaster. These options should be carefully evaluated based on the organisation's specific needs, recovery objectives, and available resources.

Data Backup and Storage Solutions

Regular data backups are crucial for ensuring the availability of essential information during a disaster. Organisations can choose from different backup methods, such as full, incremental, or differential backups, depending on their requirements. Backup data should be stored offsite, ideally in a geographically separate location, to protect against localised disasters. Additionally, implementing encryption and access controls can help secure backup data from unauthorised access.

Failover and Redundancy Systems

Failover systems and redundancy help maintain the availability of critical systems during a disaster. By creating duplicate instances of essential applications and hardware, organisations can quickly switch to backup systems if the primary systems fail. This approach can include load balancing, clustering, or mirroring technologies to ensure minimal downtime and data loss.

Cloud-based Disaster Recovery

Cloud-based disaster recovery solutions have become increasingly popular due to their flexibility, scalability, and cost-effectiveness. By leveraging the resources of cloud service providers, organisations can quickly restore their IT systems and data in the event of a disaster. Cloud-based solutions also enable the use of virtualised environments, allowing for rapid deployment and easier management of recovery processes. However, it's essential to carefully assess the security and compliance measures of a cloud provider to ensure the protection of sensitive data.

By adopting a combination of these recovery strategies and technologies, organisations can develop a robust disaster recovery plan tailored to their specific needs and risk profile. Regular evaluation and updating of these strategies are necessary to adapt to the evolving technological landscape and emerging threats.

Developing and Implementing a Disaster Recovery Plan

A successful disaster recovery plan requires a thorough development and implementation process that addresses the unique needs and challenges of an organisation. The following steps outline the key aspects of this process:

Identifying Critical Systems and Applications

The first step in developing a DRP is to identify the critical systems and applications that are essential for maintaining business operations. These systems should be prioritised during the recovery process to minimise downtime and ensure the organisation's continuity. This identification process should also consider any dependencies between systems to ensure a smooth recovery.

Documenting and Updating the DRP

Once critical systems and applications have been identified, the disaster recovery plan should be documented in detail. This documentation should include recovery objectives, strategies, team roles, emergency response procedures, and relevant contact information. Regular updates and revisions to the plan are necessary to account for changes in the organisation's infrastructure, risk profile, or recovery strategies.

Training and Awareness for Staff

Training and awareness programs are essential for ensuring that staff members are well-prepared to respond effectively during a disaster. Employees should be familiar with the disaster recovery plan, their specific roles and responsibilities, and the proper procedures to follow in the event of an incident. Regular training sessions and simulations can help reinforce this knowledge and ensure a coordinated response.

Regular Testing and Plan Maintenance

Testing the disaster recovery plan is crucial to verify its effectiveness and identify any potential weaknesses or areas for improvement. Regular testing should involve both tabletop exercises and full-scale simulations that mimic real-world disaster scenarios. Test results should be analysed, and any necessary adjustments should be made to the plan accordingly. Additionally, ongoing plan maintenance is necessary to ensure that the DRP remains up to date with any changes in technology, systems, or the organisation's structure.

By following these steps, organisations can create a comprehensive and effective disaster recovery plan that minimises the impact of IT disasters and ensures the continuity of their operations.

The Key Steps in a Disaster Recovery Plan (Template)

The purpose of a disaster recovery (DR) plan is to ensure that an organisation can effectively respond to a disaster or emergency impacting its information systems, thus minimising the effect on business operations. It is recommended to store the DR plan document in a secure, accessible off-site location after its preparation. Below are the suggested steps for creating an efficient DR plan:

  1. Major objectives: Begin by outlining the primary goals of the disaster recovery plan in broad terms.
  2. Personnel: Document your data processing personnel and include an organisation chart in the plan.
  3. Application profile: List applications, specifying if they are critical and whether they are fixed assets.
  4. Inventory profile: Record the manufacturer, model, serial number, cost, and whether each item is owned or leased.
  5. Information services backup procedures: Include details such as the schedule for changing journal receivers and saving changed objects in specific libraries and directories.
  6. Disaster recovery procedures: Address these three elements in any DR plan:
  7. Emergency response procedures to outline the appropriate response to fires, natural disasters, or other incidents to protect lives and minimise damage.
  8. Backup operations procedures to ensure the continuation of essential data processing tasks after a disruption.
  9. Recovery actions procedures to enable rapid restoration of a data processing system following a disaster.
  1. DR plan for mobile site: Incorporate a mobile site setup plan, a communication disaster plan (including wiring diagrams), and an electrical service diagram.
  2. DR plan for hot site: Create an alternate hot site plan that provides a backup site with a temporary system while the primary site is being re-established.
  3. Restoring the entire system: To restore your system to its pre-disaster state, follow the procedures for recovering from a complete system loss in Systems management: Backup and recovery.
  4. Rebuilding process: The management team should assess the damage and initiate the construction of a new data centre.
  5. Testing the disaster recovery and cyber recovery plan: Regularly test and evaluate the DR plan to ensure its effectiveness, as data processing operations are volatile and subject to frequent changes in equipment, programs, and documentation. Treat the plan as a constantly evolving document.
  6. Disaster site rebuilding: This step should encompass a data centre floor plan, current hardware needs with potential alternatives, data centre square footage, power requirements, and security requirements.
  7. Record of plan changes: Maintain an up-to-date disaster recovery plan by keeping records of changes to your configuration, applications, and backup schedules and procedures.

Conclusion

A comprehensive disaster recovery plan is vital for organisations of all sizes and industries. By preparing for the various types of disasters that can impact IT systems, businesses can minimise the risks associated with downtime, data loss, and reputational damage. A well-structured DRP not only helps to maintain business continuity but also provides a sense of confidence and security to stakeholders, including employees, customers, and partners.

Disaster recovery planning is not a one-time effort; it requires ongoing commitment, evaluation, and adaptation to address the ever-evolving landscape of IT threats and technologies. Regularly updating the DRP, testing its effectiveness, and conducting staff training ensures that organisations remain resilient in the face of potential disasters. By embracing a proactive approach to disaster recovery planning, businesses can better safeguard their valuable data and systems, ensuring their continued success and growth in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Joe Aucott