Friday, May 22, 2020

Why outages are as serious as cyber threats

Modern business ceases to function without IT. More precisely, it’s data that keeps the wheels turning, across all kinds of industries. Whether being able to co-ordinate resources, respond to customer demands, or gather market-leading intelligence, none can happen without being able to keep the lights on. Most of us have well and truly left the era of ‘in’ and ‘out’ trays behind, and businesses seek out the power of the cloud to support the agility and capacity that they need, IT management becomes even more indispensable to everything they do.

A great deal of effort and attention is rightly focused on keeping those systems running. After all, there’s a huge amount of trust and reputation at stake if a business can’t maintain service. Often this conversation takes a security focus, given how regularly business leaders are reminded of the impact of cyber attacks, and how often outages like hit the headlines caused by cyber criminals. The latest cyber security breaches survey from the UK government, for instance, found that almost half of UK businesses have suffered a cyber breach or attack in the past 12 months, with 32% saying they were experiencing incidents every week.

It’s not always malicious

Cybercriminals regularly take systems down and hold data to ransom, and it’s obviously important that businesses have the right defenses in place to minimize their impact, as part of a wider data management strategy. But systems can equally come under threat from acts of nature, misconfiguration and IT bugs, or even just a simple human error. At the end of the day, the result is the same – systems are knocked offline, data access is lost and business operations suffer. 

Understanding a threat is the first step in being able to combat it. The best way to survive is to prepare and appreciate the true impact of what an outage could do to a business is a great first step. Examples like stock trading app Robinhood, for instance, which has suffered several outages during a highly active time for financial markets, impacting customer trust in the platform. A major outage could be enough to knock a business out of action permanently if systems are badly damaged enough, or customer data is stolen. Customers will vote with their feet, and temporary substitutes can quickly become permanent switches if things aren’t resolved quickly. What’s most important?

Disaster recovery

Disaster recovery and backup capabilities are no longer a ‘nice to have’ when even a short outage can be so devastating. They’re inseparable from a business’ wider continuity plans. Research from the Ponemon Institute, for instance, found a typical outage costs as much as $9,000 per minute. When business-critical data is so valuable, managing this challenge is something that needs to be done carefully and intelligently, considering all the possibilities in play. A good place to start is by thinking about where disaster recovery fits within a business’ wider strategy. 

This can be done by carrying out an impact assessment – figuring out what apps and services are of most importance to operations, and what’s the maximum amount of downtime they can handle before those operations grind to a halt. Payment processing systems, for instance, may emerge to be particularly important to keep running. From there, calculating things like recovery targets are possible. Plan can then be more confidently put in place to respond if things don’t go as expected, whether a business is storing data locally, in the cloud, or a combination of the two. 

It’s important to remember for instance, that while cloud service providers can be an incredibly convenient option for businesses to rely on for their IT and storage needs as they grow, expand, and require more capacity, the service level agreements (SLAs) they typically have don’t usually make any guarantees around uptime and availability. The onus is on the business themselves to make sure they have fallback plans and strategies in place to make sure that should an incident occur, a basic level of service can be maintained while things get back to normal.

A leadership priority

Proactivity is key, and to really test their capabilities, businesses should be also considering running tests on their data. Vulnerability to already-known attacks becomes much more apparent, and by creating sandboxes – isolated areas that makes experimentation possible – IT teams can find weaknesses in systems and truly stress test their data in a confident, safe way before it happens in a real situation. 

A good data management strategy eliminates the mad scramble to react to an outage or system issue. When so much is at stake, business leaders need to respect the outage. Disaster recovery and backup software plans need to be treated with the same importance as a physical fire drill – regularly tested and evaluated, with everyone involved clear on their precise role. When this is in place, it doesn’t matter where an outage has come from - leaders can be confident that they can return to a state of business as usual as quickly as possible.

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