An IT disaster recovery plan comprehensively documents a combination of policies, technology, and procedures to restore and recover an organization’s IT infrastructure, system functionality, and data access as quickly as possible in the event that an unplanned incident takes systems and services offline. 

What constitutes a disaster?

In IT disaster recovery planning, a “disaster” is any event that disrupts IT workflows and interrupts access to applications, data, or systems, such as a power outage, hardware failure or corruption, natural disaster, human error, or adversarial tactic (e.g., hacking, malware, or cyber attack). 

An IT disaster recovery plan should cover not only basic restoration and recovery processes, but should also include protocols for managing cyber attacks, such as ransomware or data breaches. These scenarios require special mitigation and remediation (e.g., isolating affected systems, eradicating threats, and ensuring data integrity during recovery) and, in some cases, specific communications to adhere to regulatory compliance requirements (e.g., notifying authorities and impacted individuals).   

IT recovery

IT recovery should not be considered merely a safety net for unforeseen disruptions; it should be a proactive and integral component of an organization’s overall strategy. The rapid restoration of critical applications, data, and systems allows the organization to maintain business continuity, even in the face of disaster.  

Effective IT recovery necessitates a multi-faceted approach, such as:  

  • Data backup protocols, such as: 
    • Redundancy (i.e., duplicated and geographically dispersed) 
      • Failover mechanisms that provide: 
      • Seamlessly switching to a secondary system   
      • Network resilience   
    • Regular backups stored offsite or in the cloud 
  • Malware and ransomware mitigation, including procedures for: 
    • Isolating infected systems 
    • Eradicating malware 
    • Validating data integrity before restoration 
    • Identifying root causes 
  • Regular testing and revisions to: 
    • Adapt to changing IT landscapes, emerging threats, and evolving business needs 
    • Simulate disasters with drills to identify gaps in the recovery process  
  • Integration with the organization’s broader business continuity planning, including: 
    • Ensuring alignment with the organization’s overall strategy and objectives 
    • Coordinating across various departments 
    • Communicating with stakeholder  
    • Maintaining transparency and managing expectations 

How to develop an IT disaster recovery plan

An IT disaster recovery plan begins by compiling an inventory of software applications and data as well as the hardware required to run them, including servers, desktops, laptops, mobile devices, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. A broader IT consideration is using standardized hardware, which makes it easier to replace and reimage new hardware.  

The following is a summary of key considerations when beginning to develop an IT disaster recovery plan. 

  • Goals set expectations for how the team should respond to a disaster, including any expectations for maximum downtime and data loss as well as recovery time and point objects (i.e., how the IT disaster recovery plan should work) 
  • Backup procedures detail where and how all data resources are backed up and instructions on recovering the backed-up data 
  • IT inventory lists any software and hardware assets, as well as instructions for how they are used, identities of authorized users, and whether they are deemed critical for day-to-day operations 
  • Recovery team responsibilities define all staff members involved in the IT disaster recovery plan, including who is responsible for what actions after a disruption and who will be their backups if they are unavailable 
  • Recovery sites detail the location of a secondary offsite backup or data storage and access protocols 
  • Recovery procedures provide step-by-step instructions for how the organization will respond in an emergency to minimize downtime, limit the extent of the damage, and perform restorations from backups 
  • Recovery point quantifies recovery point objectives (RPOs), which define the acceptable data loss in different scenarios (this is controlled by the frequency of data backups) 
  • Recovery time recovery time objectives (RTOs), which define the acceptable downtime in different scenarios
  • Restoration procedures to be followed to restore lost systems or data and resume normal operations 
  • IT disaster recovery plan testing schedule and processes for frequent testing to ensure that recovery and restoration functions can be executed in the event of a disaster 

When creating an IT disaster recovery plan, a review of the following proven steps can help ensure that all the critical details are included. 

  1. Audit IT resources 
    • Know what IT resources are used in normal operations  
    • Understand what impact resources have on the organization if they are unavailable 
    • Document what data each resource holds 
    • Inventory the organization’s IT infrastructure 
  2. Identify critical operations
    Document what needs to be protected during the disaster, including: 
    • Network equipment 
    • Hardware 
    • Software 
    • Cloud services 
    • Critical data 
  3. Assess vulnerabilities that can cause disruptions
    For example, financial and technology industries are at a higher risk of cyber attacks. Team members should work with other departments to compile a comprehensive list of potential threats to business operations.  
  4. Assign roles and responsibilities
    After identifying potential disrupters and determining how the company will respond in each situation, establish who is responsible for each response area and who will be their backup.  
  5. Establish recovery metrics
    Establish metrics for baselines for times to recover data, applications, and systems (i.e., RPO and RTO).    
  6. Prioritize recovery and restoration
    Prioritize the order of recovery and restoration of applications, data, and systems.  
  7. Setup remote backup   
    Remote backup for applications, data, and systems dramatically improves recovery and restoration processes and expedites the resumption of normal operations. The gold standard for data backups is the 3-2-1 backup strategy – three copies of data (i.e., production data and two backup copies) on two different media (e.g., disk and tape) and one copy offsite (e.g., cloud storage).   
  8. Create a testing process for the IT disaster recovery plan
    Once the IT disaster recovery plan has been completed, it should undergo rigorous testing to make sure that the team understands and can perform their roles and that all processes work as expected. If issues are detected, they can be resolved before the plan is marked as final.  

    Drills and testing should also be scheduled at regular intervals to ensure that the IT disaster recovery plan remains aligned with the current environment. 

What is data backup?

High-quality data backups are a critical component of an IT disaster recovery plan. Data backup is the process of creating and maintaining current copies of data, or data sets, to ensure their availability in the event of data loss due to system failures, cyber attacks, or user errors that result in deletion or alteration.  

The choice of backup method depends on factors such as the volume of data, storage capacity, and the organization’s RTO and RPO. Effective backup strategies encompass regularly scheduled backups, adherence to the 3-2-1 rule (keeping three copies of data on two different media with one offsite), and ensuring backups are immutable to prevent alteration or deletion by unauthorized parties. 

The three data backup process methodologies are: 

  • Full backup
    A complete copy of all selected data sets is created
  • Incremental backup
    Only the data that has changed since the last backup, whether it was a full or another incremental backup, is saved
  • Differential backup
    Copies of all the data that has changed since the last full backup is saved

Resources for IT disaster recovery plans

Publicly available resources for creating an IT disaster recovery plan are provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).  

Make an IT disaster recovery plan a strategic benefit

The formulation and maintenance of an IT disaster recovery plan is an imperative strategic investment for any organization committed to maintaining resilience in the face of unforeseen IT crises. It necessitates a meticulous approach to risk assessment, prioritizing the protection of critical assets, and implementing systems to support the swift restoration of services.  

Every organization, regardless of size or industry, should invest in a robust IT disaster recovery plan, regularly test and update it, and train their staff on its implementation. Investing in this comprehensive preparedness not only safeguards against data loss and service interruptions, but also fortifies the organization’s overall cybersecurity posture and avoids financial and reputational losses. 

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