Virtualisation: the indomitable gall of thrifty business continuity

Business continuity can take many forms, from simply making sure key personnel are contactable at all times to having an separate facility built to relocate...

Business continuity can take many forms, from simply making sure key personnel are contactable at all times to having an separate facility built to relocate to in case of a disaster. Yet one aspect that is nearly always consistent is data backup and recovery: making sure vital information vital is saved in a safe place, and can be recovered when needed. The latest technology to provide benefits for backup and recovery is virtualisation, allowing multiple machines to be created in a single physical box.

The benefits virtualisation provides to a business continuity plan are quite straightforward. Rather than having to spend large amounts of money and time duplicating physical systems, organisations can put in place a virtual disaster recovery environment. The major benefit comes from the ease and low cost of setting up virtual machines; it is much easier to create "spare" machines, and to have them distributed more widely, greatly reducing the chances that a disaster will cripple the business.

However, although virtualisation has the potential to be a wonderful tool for business continuity, it is not without its problems. The primary concern is one of management: virtual machines are not like physical ones, and it can be very easy to lose track of when and where they are created. Other than a small notification of the original action, there need not be any record of a virtual machine's creation. As a result, it can be easy to either create multiple unnecessary copies of machines, or to overlook an area of data that has not been duplicated. Left unchecked, virtualisation can easily grow out of control, with a sprawl of virtual machines which may or may not contain vital data. For the purposes of business continuity, this is quite evidently unacceptable.

On top of this, the tools and processes used to manage backup and recovery of physical servers simply are not appropriate for virtual machines. For example, traditional backup systems are predicated on the old one-to-one ratio: one physical server to one operating system, with one agent on each to back up the content. In the virtual world, the ratio is one-to-many. It could easily become one physical server to ten operating systems, with ten agents - a recipe for real performance problems. Why make one physical server bear the burden of ten backup processes, when only one is required? Newer generation backup products designed with the virtual "one-to-many" ratio in mind are much more efficient, both in backing up and recovering. In addition, organisations will find that when they need to recover data, and the clock is ticking, data might be lost and recovery takes far too long. Without the correct tools, when backing up and recovering virtual machines only large amounts of data from a single point in time can be moved, as a single file - a somewhat inelegant "all or nothing" approach.

Luckily, solving these problems need not be difficult or expensive. As with most management, common sense will solve the majority of problems and tools to fix others are readily available. First, organisations need to rigorously map their virtual machines. IT must work to identify and record all virtual architecture and then have a system for monitoring to ensure they are alerted to any changes. Protocols must be put in place regarding the creation of virtual machines and these must be followed and enforced to the letter. Creation should be standardised as much as possible, both to increase efficiency and, more importantly, to make it easier to control. With correct monitoring and reporting, it will be easy to ensure that all relevant data is backed up and that machines are only present where they are wanted, rather than spread at random.

Secondly, IT departments should make sure that they have the correct tools for backing up and restoring virtual machines. While this may involve more initial expense than attempting to make do with older, physical-system-based tools, this pales into insignificance compared to finding out that your virtual machines have not been backed up when disaster strikes. It is not just about backup, though; restoration is also key. Organisations should be testing to ensure that they have the correct tools and processes in place to bring applications and data on backed up systems on line within minutes if and when needed.

Implementing virtualisation brings along a sea change in managing IT. As long as they understand this, organisations can ensure that their business continuity takes full advantage of this new technology, rather than being hamstrung by it. By using virtual machines for disaster recovery, and ensuring that management adapts its methods and tools to cope with the technology, businesses can rest assured that their operations are more secure than ever before.

Ratmir Timashev is CEO of Veeam Software

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