DIY-IT guide to disaster preparedness: Because it's always something

Between natural disasters and cyberattacks, IT managers have a big job ensuring business continuity. In this guide, we offer ten key strategies to help your organization weather Mother Nature's wrath and cyberattackers' latest weapons.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

2017 has been an extremely difficult year for much of North America. We were hit with hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Mary in the southeast, and wildfires through much of the west. Other regions suffered their own disasters and challenges, as well.

No region of the United States is fully safe from natural disasters. A look at some FEMA planning maps in the accompanying video shows us just how widespread the risk can be.

Hurricane risk blankets the southern and eastern coasts. Landslides occur anywhere the ground is too soft with too many rainstorms. Even in areas not normally subject to coastal hurricanes, heavy rains can cause catastrophic flooding. High winds and atmospheric conditions cause tornadoes, particularly through the middle states. Tectonic fault lines slice through the core of of our nation, causing small and devastating earthquakes.

As those in Oregon, Washington, and California's Sonoma county have come to know, wildfires can be deadly. Drought conditions can make regions even more susceptible to fires.

And in addition to natural disasters, there are the cyberattacks. Barely a day goes by without news of a new attack or terrible breach.

The fact is, it's always something. We need to be prepared.

That's why disaster preparedness is so important. In this guide, we'll talk about 10 key strategies you can employ to be more prepared.

#1 Optimize power utilization

Power outages are often brief. If your backup power can last an hour, you'll be able to outlast 99 percent of all outages. Also, be careful using "dummy" loads to test your power generation, because they are big power consumers without providing much benefit.

Instead, configure your power utility as a backup power source, and use your data center's actual load to test your generators. This way you get an accurate picture of what your real needs will be during brownouts.

#2 Integrate a hybrid cloud strategy

If you still maintain on-premises infrastructure, use the cloud as a redundancy for local servers. Even for those organizations who have jurisdictional or other concerns about utilizing the cloud, utilizing cloud redundancy can still provide customer-facing visibility and show that your company is still in operation despite any disaster.

Also, consider using co-location if you're concerned about public clouds. With co-lo, you own your own hardware and control everything on it, but you gain the benefit of operating systems in different regions. That way, if an entire region is compromised due to a disaster, co-lo'd operations in other regions can pick up the slack.

During regular operating times, you can benefit from this architecture by splitting your workloads, which allows you to balance surges without reducing service levels.

#3 Plan for failover to additional vendors

Don't rely on a single cloud vendor for providing service. Cloud vendors, despite their enormous infrastructure capabilities, do have failures, too. Be sure to operate your cloud presence in more than one region. If you're using AWS, consider also adding Azure services for failover, and vice-versa.

#4 Embrace virtualization for failover


Virtualization allows you to implement complete servers and networks in software. This allows for your entire data center to be replicated and moved in the case of disaster, just as easily as moving a file.

Keep in mind that once you've virtualized, your virtualized infrastructure is no longer tied to a specific local region. Even if you have to fling your environment across the world, it can be possible to resume operations.

#5 Understand vendors' infrastructure

When doing disaster planning, be sure to gain a deep understanding of each vendor's infrastructure. For example, if you use a web hosting provider, and plan fail-over to another web hosting provider, it's important to make sure that they're not both based on AWS.

If you encounter a vendor unwilling to provide you details on their underlying infrastructure, it's probably a good idea to choose a different vendor. Remember, as soon as you operate on another vendor's infrastructure, that infrastructure becomes something your entire organization must rely on. Therefore, you need to treat it with the same care and concern as you would your own.

#6 Always back up your cloud data

Backup has always been a high priority for on-premises server infrastructure. But because many cloud services take responsibility for ensuring the availability and security of cloud-based data, many companies have come to rely on those providers for cloud-based backup.

That's not enough. Cloud vendors are just as subject to disaster and cyberattack as any other organization. While most cloud vendors have a very strong backup strategy in place, that should not be enough for you. Do not just keep your data in the cloud.

Bring copies of all your data down to local machines and keep a local, synchronized copies at all times. Remember the 3-2-1 rule: three copies of your data, two of which are local, and one of which is offsite. When it comes to cloud data, you still should have at least three copies, it's okay to have a second copy at another cloud provider, but make sure you have a local copy as well.

#7 Your SLA won't save you

Service level agreements are not force fields. If a natural disaster strikes, or an attacker manages to breach your systems, the existence of a service level agreement will not stop the disaster from happening. Yes, it might give your lawyers some justification for a lawsuit at a later date, but wouldn't you rather have secure business continuity than an excuse to sue someone?

I've heard this from too many companies, and it's just wrong. Do not accept that just because you have an SLA in place, you're protected. You need to take all other necessary precautions because in a fight between Mother Nature and a legal document, Mother Nature will always -- always -- win.

#8 Add redundant network connections

If all your network capability is coming in through one pipe, you're at considerable risk. If that network connection fails, you're cut off from the world. We've talked before about building in redundancy, but for some reason, network connection redundancy doesn't always get the attention it needs.

If redundancy is important for local network connections, it's absolutely critical for the connections to your cloud infrastructure providers. We talked earlier about understanding the infrastructure of your cloud providers. Only choose providers who have built in multi-vendor redundancies in their network connections, as well.

#9 Segment your network

Too many cyberattacks gain a foothold inside an organization via phishing attacks. Plus, more and more breaches occur because of insider threats. You can help mitigate both of these risks by segmenting your network, so threats can be contained.

One of the best reasons to consider virtualizing your network and implementing a software-defined data center (SDDC) architecture is because segmenting becomes much more flexible and manageable in an SDDC environment. It's possible to set up virtual firewalls on an application or workload basis, and even configure new segments and policies to be created automatically as workloads are created.

Think of segmenting your network as the water-tight doors in a boat or submarine. If one compartment gets flooded, you don't want it to spread to the rest of the ship. In the same way, segmented networks can prevent breaches from spreading.

#10 Upgrade your firewalls

Can you imagine walking around today with an iPhone 3? What about trusting your security to Windows XP? Given how old and out of date those are, it would be ludicrous. And yet, companies are still willing to rely on firewalls that are years old. Older firewalls often can't keep up with an increased data load or larger packets. When overwhelmed, many of the older firewalls opt to let data through unexamined, rather than hold up traffic. This can be catastrophic.

Hackers and cybercriminals -- not to mention attacking nation states -- are ever increasing the power and capabilities of their cyber weapons. Old firewalls are just not equipped to keep up with the sophistication of new attacks. Perform an audit on your firewalls, and make sure they're up to the current challenge. Look at next-generation firewall technology that can perform more in-depth inspections of packets, examine large payloads, and is fast enough to keep up with the heaviest network traffic.

So there you have it

Ten key strategies for protecting your company. Good luck and be safe.

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