The pros and cons of disaster recovery as a service

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Beth Stackpole, Freelance Writer, Beth Stackpole, Sole Practitioner

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As the head of IT for Goldberg Kohn, a midsize law firm in Chicago, Mark Schaub knows a thing or two about disaster recovery. During his 18-year tenure, Goldberg Kohn has worked disaster recovery from both sides of the fence, first building and managing a co-location site in a nearby suburb, and more recently, trading up to disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS).

While the firm has never experienced an event that required restoration services, disaster recovery has long been a priority. But making the move to a DRaaS platform has freed Schaub’s seven-person IT staff to focus on more pressing business initiatives while expanding the scope of what its disaster recovery plan could cover.

Shifting the labor and concern about recovery to someone else is the biggest upside, said Schaub. The fact that a DRaaS offering allows for four recovery objective tiers compared to the single recovery mode the organization had with its homegrown initiative is also a big plus, he said. “Different tiers allow us to protect more systems and data than we could have ever accomplished internally with a single-tier RTO and RPO [recovery time objectives and recovery point objectives],” he said.

Disaster recovery has joined the list of cloud services you can buy from cloud service providers, and the allure might seem irresistible. And behind all the hype there are some compelling benefits to DRaaS. But there are some serious issues to consider before you make the leap.

Here are some of the pros and cons you should weigh as you decide whether or not to trust a cloud provider for disaster recovery. 

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The two key benefits of DRaaS

Goldberg Kohn is in good company. As organizations of all sizes and types get more comfortable with storing data in the cloud, it’s a natural next step to consider moving to a DRaaS offering. As with other popular cloud services, the lure of DRaaS lies in its potential to reduce costs and ease implementation, since you pay for what you use and there’s no requirement to make a capital investment in a separate data center and dedicate manpower to ongoing disaster recovery maintenance and operations.

As with any new software, though, DRaaS is hardly a panacea. Disaster recovery experts and early adopters of the services warn of hidden costs, and you'll still need to do some rigorous planning. And whether DRaaS is a good fit also depends on your industry's data privacy and security requirements.

Nevertheless, experts predict a booming DRaaS market: A new report from Research and Markets projects a compound annual growth rate of 17.3% between 2017 and 2023, reaching $3.3 billion. Frost & Sullivan is also bullish on the technology; it views DRaaS as a significant driver of overall cloud usage.

Both small and midsize businesses are likely to look to the cloud for DR purposes, said Karyn Price, senior industry analyst and associate fellow at Frost & Sullivan. She notes that smaller companies may find a greater upside.

“It’s somewhat of a leveler. Larger enterprises have a greater capacity to buy servers for infinite backup, and SMBs don’t have that. Now, for a relatively competitive price, this delivers a full backup and recovery environment that is easy and cost-effective and that may not have been available before.”
Karyn Price

The good...

The cost savings for DRaaS in terms of capital outlay and operational costs are easy to see. Building and maintaining a secondary failover site is not cheap—it can cost millions to cover the cost of leasing space and commissioning servers and storage hardware—not to mention all the necessary replication and security software. Then there's the monthly power and cooling costs and the dedicated personnel needed to monitor and manage site operations.

In contrast, DRaaS promises a much lower total cost of ownership, with monthly service charges based on the amount of data and applications covered and your specific recovery objectives. DRaaS, delivered through a managed services provider (MSP), can offer close to turnkey operations, as well as access to specialized Editexperts and support professionals who can lend a hand with complex disaster recovery optimization and planning.

“It’s all very automated and makes for a nice package for anyone needing to do DR and looking for a cloud-based solution."
—Karyn Price

The bad

On the flip side, DRaaS doesn’t mitigate all the work involved in disaster recovery, particularly when it comes to upfront planning. IT shops, especially those with a complex mix of virtual and physical resources, still need to take the lead assessing the environment, prioritizing what to cover, establishing target RTO and RPO, and ensuring that everything is continuously monitored and tested so your plan stays in step with shifting business needs.

Consider where a DRaaS vendor's data center is located; if it operates in the same geographic region as your data center, it could be taken out by the same disaster. And unexpected costs and incompatibilities can be issues if your company doesn’t do the proper legwork vetting DRaaS providers and scoping your own disaster recovery needs.

Brien Posey, an independent Microsoft MVP, said it’s important to make sure that DR operations are actually within your budget. At the same time, Posey cautions that not every service will work with every organization’s infrastructure. “A Microsoft Hyper-V shop, for example, would not be able to use a provider that only supports DRaaS for VMware virtual machines,” he said.

“Some providers are all too happy to let you copy your data to their cloud but charge a premium price for any DR operations, including testing."
Brien Posey

Weigh your options carefully

At Goldberg Kohn, Schaub learned the hard way that DRaaS can result in unexpected costs. His team significantly underestimated how much data it needed to protect. Originally, the team thought the target was 27TB, but it ended up being 152TB—a far more expensive endeavor. Still, he said, DRaaS has a significant upside compared to performing the work internally.

“It’s a lot to pay to have that insurance, but we decided it’s worth it. It’s not a downside—we decided to buy the Cadillac, not the Chevy.”
Mark Schaub

As Schaub and many others have discovered, DRaaS has plenty of upside when it comes to reducing costs and allowing IT to shift focus to higher-value work. And yet offloading the heavy lifting of disaster recovery doesn't mean the job is done.

IT shops still need to be actively involved in strategic disaster recovery planning and work closely with DRaaS providers continually throughout the process to avoid surprises, and to ensure the disaster recovery plan stays in step with changing business needs.