Virtualisation and the cloud are bringing greater flexibility, agility and capabilities to users - but very little has been done to test data recovery plans.

Yet this lack of preparation can have serious consequences if a data disaster strikes. Adoption might be inevitable but it takes time and investment to create a data recovery plan that can protect businesses. It might require some cost upfront but safeguarding data can provide long-term savings that are too big to ignore.

Over the past few months Kroll Ontrack has conducted research with VMware to gauge perceptions about virtualisation and the issue of data recovery. Our findings reveal that while both trends have gained a lot of ground in terms of adoption, most organisations fail to test and implement data recovery plans.

This is a serious oversight when one considers the surge of information being transferred into virtual environments – and the impact that losing it can have on the reputation and financial performance of a company.

Data loss and virtualisation - reality check

Data loss isn't the first thing that comes to mind when businesses adopt a virtualised environment. Organisations are often too caught up with the benefits that these trends bring – namely the cost savings associated with maximising the use of computing resources and streamlining processes.

However, businesses that buy too much into the cost saving benefits of trends such as virtualisation don't take the necessary measures to protect data and end up having major data losses. Users will only make cost savings with virtualisation if the implementation is solid and data is secure.

In a virtualised environment, the most important component is the data and this is the only thing that does not get virtualised. Users can reconstruct and recreate any other component in a virtual environment within seconds and with just a few clicks, but this cannot be done with the data that is created in one's virtual environment.

Therefore, while businesses can make savings everywhere else in a virtual environment they should be spending more money protecting the data when they move to a virtual environment. Of course, this seems to go against what virtualisation is about, which is saving money. But up-front investment to protect data is more important in order to avoid even costlier data losses down the line.

Increased chance of losing data

According to a Kroll Ontrack and VMware survey completed by 338 IT professionals at a recent VMworld conference, 37 per cent of respondents believed that virtualisation significantly decreases the chances of data loss.

In reality, the chance of minimising data loss is only possible if data backups are performed correctly and tested carefully. Otherwise, the impact of data loss is greater than before, since a data disaster in a virtualised world can bring down many servers that share the same storage.

Surprisingly, 20 per cent of respondents believed that virtualisation doesn't affect the chance of data loss at all. Are they not responsible for backups/data recovery? Perhaps they do not understand the complexity of virtualised systems. Data loss is always an issue, regardless of what IT infrastructure is used.

Rebuilding data creates more risk

Another important finding of the survey was the respondents' answers to the question of what to do to recover lost data. A third (36 per cent) of respondents said if virtualised data is lost, they would try to rebuild the data themselves instead of calling a data recovery company – 22 per cent of respondents said they would take this decision.

Doing it yourself often makes data recovery much harder - and in some cases impossible to retrieve anything. A lot of the complexity is hidden from the users and administrators when systems are virtualised. Without a solid data recovery programme, it's very easy to lose data. There are too many risks involved in rebuilding data and using a reputed recovery company is the best option to avoid any problems.

Lack of data recovery plans

In another survey conducted by Kroll Ontrack and VMware, respondents were asked whether they tested data recovery plans regularly to ensure proper protocols are in place to protect data on virtualisation and the cloud.

This survey, carried out at VMware Forums globally among 367 IT professionals, found that while 62 per cent of survey respondents admitted to leveraging the cloud or virtualisation, only 33 per cent of these organisations tested data recovery.

This is an important finding - and a remarkable one - considering that 49 per cent of organisations also reported experiencing some type of data loss in the last year. A quarter (26 per cent) of the respondents reported a data loss from a virtual environment, while three per cent reported a loss from the cloud.

Minimising data loss

Kroll Ontrack's research shows how quickly cloud and virtualisation are gaining ground among organisations. However, history has taught us that data loss can occur in any environment - regardless of the specific technology.

The way to reducing data loss risk and successfully recovering from a loss is asking the right questions prior to adopting a new storage medium and amending your policies and procedures accordingly. Important questions to consider before adopting cloud or virtualisation include:

  • Are backup systems and protocols in place? Do these systems and protocols meet your own in-house backup standards?
  • Does your cloud vendor have a data recovery provider identified in its business continuity/disaster recovery plan?
  • What are the service level agreements with regard to data recovery, liability for loss, remediation and business outcomes?
  • Can you share data between cloud services? If you terminate a cloud relationship can you get your data back? If so, what format will it be in? How can you be sure all other copies are destroyed?

Data loss incidents continue to grow in size and complexity as more organisations move into virtual environments. There has been a 140 per cent increase in virtual data loss when compared with the year before, and this number will undoubtedly increase as more companies embrace new trends such as desktop virtualisation and BYOD.

The only way to minimise these risks is to know which problems to watch out for and to establish a formal incident management plan that includes a data backup strategy.

Robert Winter is a chief engineer at Kroll Ontrack