Important Data – it's not where you think it is…

Posted by Wayne Sheddan on 26 April 2017

We are all used to dealing with data – that raw material that correct interpretation turns into information. It comes in all forms: operating systems, databases, files, objects. It is located in all sorts of places in all sorts of formats. But one thing is common to them all: if you lose a piece it may cost you your business.

The London Chamber of Commerce undertook a review of London business disaster recovery plans and experiences and came to the following conclusions:

  • 90% of business that lose data from a disaster are forced to shut within 2 years of the disaster
  • 43% of companies experiencing disasters never recover
  • Companies experiencing a computer outage lasting longer than 10 days will never recover its full financial capacity
  • 50% of companies experiencing a computer outage will be forced to shut within five years

With this is mind the loss of access to data has significant business impact. Depending on the system involved loss of access sends the business to financial ruin. Jobs are lost, mortgages foreclosed, marriages broken, suicides – the ramifications may be broader than some data loss. Data loss has a human face.

Historically we have mitigated this risk through use of data copy techniques – often under the label 'backup'. Secondary copies of data are made and transferred to another location and held there for an extended period of time. The technology for doing this has become mind-numbingly complex – especially as online data quantities have skyrocketed. And in this complexity we have lost track of why we perform backups. Ask your typical system admin, DBA or architect and they will say 'backup is for the recovery of the system in the event of failure'. That is, they take a pure technical approach, and as long as the backup is resilient to technical failure they are happy. I'd like to challenge that notion…

Technology is but one part of the puzzle. Imagine the boardroom response to business collapse as the result of a single IT failure e.g. an admin error destroys both the online and backup environments (e.g. is your backup catalog on the production SAN?). This boardroom would not be a welcoming place, and given boardrooms often have a lawyer or two present one would have to be aware of potential professional negligence claims. And those claims would be well founded – a prima facie case would be strong.

Now, take your typical environment that leverages snapshots for rapid restore and another copy to another device. Suppose that primary storage platform suffers catastrophic failure e.g. software update corrupts metadata – obliterating the configuration. The secondary copy now becomes the recovery option to be used, and if the recovery fails it is not that systems can't be restored – it is that you are out of business. Thus, the secondary copy (aka 'backup') becomes the last thing standing between you and financial oblivion. Suddenly that backup data is the most important data you have – simply because of when you have to use it!

Yet backup data seems to be seen as a nuisance – with many seemingly wanting to avoid it if possible. Many are seriously considering relying solely on primary storage techniques for recovery. And while from a technical perspective this avoids the need for complex data copying techniques, and a whole extra infrastructure, this approach considerably increases the risks of data and system loss. Often this desire to avoid backup is justified using the 'get out of jail' card of 'likelihood'. And yes, catastrophic primary storage failure is unlikely. But ask the business owner about losing their business because you can't be bothered making another copy and see the response. And ask them how important that secondary copy is in the event of primary copy failure.
Suddenly that backup data is the most important data you have.

My impression is that this is at odds with many others in the industry at the moment – for whom it's just a necessary evil. Lets reclaim an awareness of the tragic human consequences of system and data loss and give backup the value and attention it deserves. Business owners demand no less.

Wayne Sheddan is Storage Practice Lead at Open Systems Specialists. Wayne has over 25 years in the IT Industry and specialises in Storage consulting and architecture.