Options for maintaining redundant facilities for a disaster recovery site are typically expensive. A significantly less expensive strategy is for two institutions to partner up and in essence be each other's backup facility. The potential is certainly there, but first a partner needs to be found and a significant co-operative relationship needs to be built.
How This Can Save Money
By partnering, two institutions can save on the costs of building or leasing facilities for remote hot sites where critical applications and replicated data are hosted for disaster recovery. In the partnership, each pays for the other to expand their current capacity to be available for hot site failover.
The major cost driver of business continuity and disaster recovery planning is typically the need to purchase, configure, and house redundant hardware and software at a disaster recovery site. In addition to the added cost burden, this technology sits unused until a disaster strikes the primary site, if at all.
Server virtualization can help mitigate these costs. Instead of maintaining identical server hardware, the focus shifts to maintain suitable remote capacity (processing and storage) to host the virtual machines. For more information on how virtualization can save hardware costs, refer to the Info-Tech Advisor research note, “Virtual Servers Lower Business Continuity Costs.”
Even with virtualization, however, there is still a need to own and maintain remote facilities where this capacity is housed or to lease the capacity from a DR services provider.
Case Example: Bowdoin College and Loyola Marymount University
A pioneering example of how such a partnership can work comes from Bowdoin College, located in Maine, and Loyola Marymount University, which is located in California. The two institutions have developed a partnership to be each other's reciprocal DR hot sites.
The two institutions estimate that contracting with a commercially hosted disaster-recovery hot site would cost about $1.2 million per year. In the first year of working together, the two institutions spent about $35,000, mainly in staff time. They expect to spend about $54,000 to expand their storage and blade server capacity to accommodate each other's hot site requirements.
The two institutions each use VMware to host multiple virtual machines on blade servers and they both use Network Appliance (NetApp) storage arrays. They are using a dedicated VPN to connect the two data centers across the continent.
The common infrastructure forms a foundation for the partnership. NetApp storage arrays have built-in capabilities for site-to-site replication between arrays. Virtual machines are highly portable and can be restarted on a remote host server. The two institutions are leveraging these capabilities to establish an active-active reciprocal backup relationship.
In the Bowdoin/LMU case, technology was not the main issue in making the collaboration work. The main challenges that needed to be overcome were on the management and planning side. Some of the issues included:
- Interdepartmental cooperation. The project required a high level of cooperation and mutual support between two IT departments separated by a continent. Getting the two working together involved working out details of roles, responsibilities, and competencies, but also social and cultural aspects. A strong collaborative and mutually supportive team needed to be fostered.
- High level support and involvement. Though the project was initially developed at the CIO level, its success involved sharing and mutual responsibility for core data and applications. A collaboration at such a critical level required bringing the University Presidents into the process. This took the form of a formal letter of understanding signed by the heads of both institutions.
- Harmonizing compliance requirements. Each institution will have its own internal requirements set by its DR plan. There were also different legal compliance requirements across different disciplines. Each institution had to be able to meet the compliance requirements of the other even though they may not have such requirements in their own jurisdiction.
- Reciprocal partnership is a worthy goal. If a partner institution can be found, there is significant potential for DR cost savings in developing a reciprocal hot site relationship. Take advantage of industry associations and networks to seek out a partner – the Bowdoin/LMU case grew out of networking at an EDUCAUSE conference. Also, query vendors for contacts who have purchased similar solutions for their institutions.
- Infrastructure similarity is the foundation. Look for similar infrastructures in potential partners. Mutual use of virtualization is strongly recommended. Storage tends to be proprietary so storage from the same vendor is also advantageous. A further key item will be the nature of the telecommunications connections between the two institutions. A stable and dedicated connection will be critical.
- This is a personnel management project. Beyond technical parity, success will depend on each IT organization's ability to share and collaborate. Each will bring areas of competency, and in making the match each will have to trust the other's abilities. There must be open communication and close collaboration.
- Have a solid DR plan going in. Hot site requirements – regardless of the provider – will be driven by the disaster recovery plan. This is where issues such as levels of business criticality, recovery priority, recovery time objectives, and recovery point objectives are set. These must be firmly established before setting the requirements of the remote DR facility. Going forward the plans will need to be harmonized so that mutual responsibilities and procedures for recovery are spelled out.
- Involve the senior levels. DR is a strategic-level enterprise project. A partnership of this sort requires the understanding and signoff of the most senior level of both institutions. Though the details of execution and investment can be worked out at the IT department level, the senior level needs to be aware of the nature of the partnership – as well as any potential risks. Each institution is being entrusted with the other's family jewels.
Maintaining a backup site for disaster recovery and business continuity is an expensive proposition. By partnering with another educational institution – each being the other's backup site – there is significant potential to save on these costs. Beyond finding a suitable technical partner, the key is in building a strong trust relationship.
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