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Perform a Backup Checkup with Disaster Recovery Testing

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Dale Shulmistra

Data Protection Specialist @ Invenio IT

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Disaster Recovery Testing

The modern world runs on data, and disaster recovery testing offers peace of mind that your data backups can be successfully restored when it matters most. While you may not be able to dictate when or how a disaster occurs, regularly verifying that your data backups are complete and usable gives you control over how well your organization responds in the event of an emergency.

While businesses have become increasingly aware of the need for data backups, many fail to test them. A 2021 research study found that among the organizations surveyed, around 50% only tested their disaster recovery once a year or less, and 7% didn’t conduct any testing at all. The unfortunate reality is that implementing a backup and disaster recovery solution isn’t enough. Testing your backups, along with all the other elements of your disaster recovery planning, is critical to protecting your organization’s long-term interests. Keep reading to learn what disaster recovery testing is and how to conduct tests that yield useful and actionable results.

What Is Disaster Recovery Testing?

When businesses conduct disaster recovery testing, they verify that the systems and processes that allow them to recover from disruptive events are working properly. Testing typically applies to data backup systems, but it can also include all the protocols that recovery personnel should use following a disaster, as dictated by an organization’s disaster recovery plan.

The components of disaster recovery testing include:

  • Testing backups to ensure data can be restored
  • Conducting mock recovery tests that help familiarize recovery teams with numerous methods involved in the process of restoring backups
  • Holding drills that test the activation of a disaster recovery plan and documented protocols

Although we’re largely focusing on backup testing, it’s critical that organizations test every component of their recovery planning to reduce the risk of unexpected problems after a disaster.

Why Is It Important to Test Backups?

Data backups are an essential layer of protection for every business. However, they are notoriously unreliable during the recovery process, especially if you’re using old technology. If you aren’t regularly testing your backups, you could face unnecessary complications when disaster strikes.

Unanticipated Delays

In a perfect world, every data backup would allow you to successfully restore your data the moment that you need it. At the very least, your organization should be aware of how long it will take to regain access to all of its sensitive and critical information. Unfortunately, the length of time required for data recovery can be a nasty surprise for businesses that haven’t been doing testing.

Even if you are able to successfully restore your data, an unexpectedly long recovery can have a costly impact on mission-critical systems. In a ransomware attack, for instance, the loss of data can cause operational downtime across the organization, costing tens of thousands of dollars per hour for smaller companies. For enterprises, that downtime can cost millions.

The problem here isn’t just the delay. It’s also the disconnect between the anticipated recovery time (as outlined within the disaster recovery plan) and the actual results. When restoring a backup doesn’t go as expected, it can have reverberating effects across the business.

The Real-World Impact of Flawed Backups

People sometimes fail to realize how much of a role data backups play in nearly every aspect of their everyday lives, from medical appointments to financial transactions. The importance of effective backups became painfully clear in January 2023, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had to ground all national departing flights for the first time since the attacks on September 11th. The cause of the grounding wasn’t terrorism but rather an outage of the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) database, which occurred when a contractor accidentally deleted files while synchronizing live and backup databases. The result was more than a thousand canceled or delayed flights and millions of frustrated passengers.

What does this have to do with disaster recovery testing? Although this issue seemingly stemmed from human error, backup issues in general can paralyze the operations of organizations large and small. While the FAA is taking steps to remedy the problems that led to the temporary shutdown of flights across the country, other organizations should take note and work to prevent the chaos that ensues when backups are damaged, corrupted, or incomplete.

Why Do Data Backups Fail?

In order to fully understand why data recovery testing is so crucial, it’s necessary to have a clear picture of where things go wrong. Broken systems and device failures can leave organizations with an unexpected crisis when they try to restore their data.

Problems that Occur During Data Restoration

A number of common problems can occur during the recovery process, and, without ongoing testing, you’ll have no early warning that these issues exist. Application errors, hardware failures, power outages, and operating system errors are just a few of the many ways that data can be corrupted, whether prior to being backed up or during the backup process. Without proper and regular testing, you could experience:

  • Data corruption that prevents your backups from being restored
  • Unexpected delays that significantly extend the time it takes to complete the recovery
  • Costly mistakes that further delay the recovery and negatively affect the business’s critical operations

Each of these issues has the potential to cause extensive harm to your organization’s bank account and reputation.

Problems Reconstructing the Chain

Traditional incremental backups depend on a sometimes fragile series of backups, referred to as the backup chain. This chain consists of the very first full backup and all the smaller incremental backups that follow. For instance, imagine that you create an initial backup on Sunday, June 1st. This backup captures all of the data on your system. The next day’s backup doesn’t include everything you already stored the previous day. Instead, it adds any changes or additions you’ve made since the previous backup. This process continues during each daily backup, incrementally adding information to create a comprehensive, up-to-date backup of all of your data.

However, if data corruption has occurred in any one of those incrementals, it can compromise the integrity of the entire backup, preventing it from being restored. With traditional incremental backups, recovery begins by reconstructing all those individual incremental and combining them with the initial full backup to create a single file or image. Unfortunately, this process is time-consuming and isn’t always effective. Reconstructing incrementals is by no means instantaneous. It can take hours, even when you’re dealing with relatively small volumes of data. If data corruption has occurred, you might lose the corrupted data from that incremental, or, in the worst-case scenario, the entire backup could be useless.

How to Conduct Disaster Recovery Testing

If your organization isn’t in the habit of conducting disaster recovery testing, it might be difficult to know where to start. Following a few clear steps will allow you to develop a consistent testing system that helps ensure your data backups and disaster protocols are ready for anything.

Choose the Right Backup Solution

Ideally, the first step to testing your disaster recovery systems is deploying a backup system that facilitates comprehensive testing. Even organizations with the best intentions may not be able to fully test their systems if they don’t have the right backup devices and strategies in place. What you can test is ultimately dictated by the limitations of your business continuity and disaster recovery (BC/DR) solution.

If you’re in the process of evaluating backup systems, look for solutions that offer instant recovery options and the ability to test those recovery methods via multiple storage locations, such as on-premise devices and the cloud. Instant recovery typically refers to image-based backups that can be restored within seconds directly from a backup device or a virtual server, locally or in the cloud.

Define Which Recovery Systems Should Be Tested

Disaster recovery testing shouldn’t be limited to backups, and recovery teams must be on the same page about what should be tested. As part of your disaster recovery plan, define the scope of testing, outlining all the systems and processes that need to be tested. For example, testing could also apply to backup power generators, network hardware, and fire-alarm systems. All of these details should be spelled out prior to starting the testing process.

Test On-site Backup Devices

In most data-loss scenarios, you’ll be restoring data from the local backup device or server, so this is a good place to start your testing. If feasible, test a variety of recoveries, such as file-level and full image restores.

As you test, you should measure:

  • How long the recovery takes
  • Whether it meets your recovery time objectives (RTOs)
  • If there were any errors or unexpected problems

If any issues arise, they should be documented and resolved as soon as possible. For example, if testing reveals repeated data corruption issues, IT managers should work to identify and troubleshoot the underlying causes.

Test Cloud Backups

If you’re replicating backups to a public or private cloud (and you should be for stronger continuity), then you need to test those backups as well. Depending on the scale of your testing and the capabilities of your BC/DR, recovering from the cloud will typically take longer than a local recovery. What you should be testing for is whether that recovery still meets your documented RTO and whether any problems surface during the process.

Virtualize Locally and in the Cloud

If your system allows it, backup virtualization enables you to boot your backup as a virtual machine. This provides the fastest access to your protected operating systems, applications, and data, so businesses can continue their critical operations through almost any disaster.

Virtualized recoveries must be tested regularly to ensure they perform as expected. This should be done via the on-site backup device and in the cloud, if your system offers these capabilities. When testing, look for answers to these questions:

  • Is there a noticeable drop in performance?
  • Is the speed being hindered by on-site factors, such as network speed?
  • Are critical applications usable and functioning properly?

Speed and performance are key factors. This is especially true if you’re relying completely on the cloud to spin up your backups.

How Often to Test

The frequency of your testing depends on your business’s unique recovery objectives. However, for most organizations, testing should happen year-round. It might be helpful to follow these general guidelines:

  • Consider doing local recovery testing once per quarter, since this will usually be the most common method for restoring data.
  • For more comprehensive recovery scenarios, such as cloud failovers, consider testing at least twice a year.
  • Whenever there are significant changes to a production environment, it’s a good time to run another disaster recovery test, regardless of the default testing schedule.

No matter when exactly you test, the most important thing is that the testing occurs and that it’s more than a one-off event.

The Value of Automation

Automation has the power to simplify every aspect of the backup process, from saving data to conducting regular tests. When used properly, automation also has the potential to reduce errors and prevent data corruption.

Automated Backups

Sophisticated data backup solutions allow organizations to automate their backups. Rather than manually initiating or closing out a backup process, the system triggers on its own, creating a new backup file every few days, hours, or even minutes. This makes it less likely that crucial backup data will be missing when the time comes to restore your files.

The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) serves as an alarming example of why automated backups are so important. In January 2023, a staffer in the NYSE’s Chicago data center forgot to shut down the disaster recovery and backup system. What followed the next morning was pandemonium on the trading room floor, as the system failed to recognize that a new day of trading had begun. Reports indicate that the error affected more than 250 businesses and caused massive fluctuations in share prices, rattling the financial community and causing long-term headaches for the NYSE as it fields complaints.

While it’s easy to blame an individual staffer for this mistake, there’s a more important lesson to be learned. Since revealing the origins of the glitch, the NYSE has faced serious criticism about the lack of automation in its disaster recovery system. It’s reasonable to question why such an influential and sizable organization doesn’t have a more effective backup solution with automated shutdowns, which would eliminate the need for human intervention and help prevent future crises.

Automated Testing

Today’s best BC/DR solutions not only create backups automatically but also test them to ensure they can be booted. This is typically referred to as backup verification or validation. It’s an automated process that actively monitors each new backup and notifies IT team members whether the backup was successfully completed and tested or not.

The most important benefit of automated testing is that, in the event that problems occur, the system automatically alerts administrators so they can resolve the issue immediately. Some systems offer customized control over this automation, allowing you to define how the backup should be tested. For example, you can add your own scripts to make the verification more intensive or remove values that are causing false positives.

Other Disaster Recovery Testing Tips

Traditional backup systems are notorious for data corruption due to problems in the backup chain, but newer solutions solve this problem by eliminating dependence on the backup chain entirely. For example, Inverse Chain Technologystores each new snapshot in a fully constructed state, resulting in more resilient backups and eliminating the need to wait for incrementals to be reconstructed.

It’s equally important to keep in mind that the first time you run a test, there’s a good chance that your system won’t perform well. Rather than taking these setbacks as a sign of failure, use them as an opportunity to improve your existing systems. Disaster recovery testing is not a pass/fail exam that requires you to show total mastery in every area of your BC/DR planning. Rather, it’s a chance to prevent future failures that could have lasting effects on your organization. Each issue that you encounter during a test is one less unpleasant surprise that will cause disruptions in the event of a real-life emergency.

Check on Your Backups with Disaster Recovery Testing

Data backups are vital to continuous business operations, but they aren’t immune to errors and flaws. According to a study by Veeam, data backup systems are prone to failure, and only 57% of backups in the prior year were completed successfully. Unfortunately, businesses often don’t realize that their backups haven’t worked until it’s much too late and their data is already lost.

If your organization needs to develop a system of disaster recovery testing, reach out to the experts at Invenio IT. The team can provide you with a free demo of the best data backup solutions and offer guidance on how to properly test your backups, protecting your data from permanent damage and loss.

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