Best practices for disaster recovery testing

Implementing a disaster recovery plan to protect against data loss

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Disaster recovery testing explained

Many organizations understand the importance of implementing a disaster recovery plan to protect against data loss or the destruction of IT infrastructure. A properly formulated plan defines the processes and procedures to follow in the event of a disaster.

However, we assume too often that our recovery plans are effective without having tested them thoroughly — or at all. To gauge the effectiveness and robustness of these plans and determine whether we can really execute them, we must test them extensively.

What is disaster recovery testing?

Disaster recovery testing is the continuous testing and examination of an organization’s disaster recovery plan. Its purpose is to discover and resolve flaws in the plan that might impede an organization’s ability to restore operations, data, and applications after a disaster occurs.

In this article, we’ll explore the most common array of disaster recovery testing strategies and highlight some best practices for ensuring that we can effectively test our recovery plans.

Disaster recovery testing methodologies

Usually, a disaster recovery plan remains theoretical until a disaster strikes. At that point, it’s too late to rectify the plan. This is why disaster recovery testing is important: it enables us to assess the readiness and efficacy of the recovery plan, and make adjustments before we encounter a crisis.

Several components comprise a comprehensive testing approach: checklist testing, walk-through testing, simulation testing, parallel testing, and full-interruption testing.

Checklist testing

Checklist testing amasses the knowledge and resources of every process within a business. When we execute it properly, we can ensure that the procedural details of a recovery plan are comprehensive, and account for the resources and personnel that each step of the plan requires. This can include verifying chains of command and escalation, the integrity and timeliness of documentation, and the availability of backup systems.

Walk-through testing

This is a step-by-step review of the established plan, in which the disaster recovery team and relevant stakeholders walk through each plan component. This process ensures a unified approach among everyone involved, and provides an opportunity to identify gaps, weaknesses, or overlooked details that might present roadblocks during execution.

Simulation testing

As the name suggests, simulation testing involves role-playing the disaster recovery plan within a pre-established disaster scenario. Its primary goal is to mimic a real-world disaster as closely as possible without disrupting regular business operations.

Effective simulation testing should incorporate all possible physical and digital operations, movements, and communication in the disaster recovery plan. This helps us ensure the efficacy of our checklists and walk-throughs and test the availability and usability of any documentation or information that we would need to access during a disaster.

Parallel testing

In parallel testing, we build and use recovery systems identical to production systems, running them in parallel with the production environment. We then test the recovery systems with real-world production data and equipment while the primary systems still carry the full production workload. This testing mode gives deeper insight into any changes we may need to make in our backup systems to support proper disaster response and recovery.

Full-interruption testing

Finally, there is full interruption testing. This is the most disruptive test wherein we use our real production data and equipment to respond to a fabricated disaster. Full-interruption testing tends to be time-consuming and causes severe disruptions in day-to-day business operations. Therefore, full-interruption testing should be done only after all of the testing methods described above have been thoroughly examined and implemented.

7 Best practices for disaster recovery testing

The value of disaster recovery testing is in its feedback, which enables us to amend our plans to meet our recovery objectives best. It gives us the confidence that our disaster recovery plans can guarantee the restoration of operations during or after a disaster.

However, we won’t achieve considerable confidence without taking a comprehensive approach through each testing component. So let’s look at some best practices for disaster recovery testing to ensure that we’ve covered all the bases.

  1. Test many scenarios

  2. Test regularly

  3. Document everything

  4. Keep everyone updated

  5. Define metrics

  6. Evaluate the results

  7. Test your disaster recovery plan

1. Test many scenarios

There are many scenarios to consider in a disaster recovery plan. Therefore, it is vital to test as many different disaster scenarios as possible. These can include equipment failures, malware/ransom attacks, costly human error, natural disasters, or loss of staff/personnel.

2. Test regularly

IT systems are dynamic. A single successful test does not guarantee a subsequent one. Therefore, it is crucial to perform disaster recovery testing regularly to keep pace with system updates and evolution.

Testing frequency will differ for each organization, depending on business requirements, customers’ needs, and the organization’s time and resources. An example schedule may include smaller tests that we can run throughout the year and a comprehensive test that we perform once or twice annually. Defining and enforcing a testing schedule that remains consistent with our business needs is also essential.

3. Document everything

Document everything about the tests — from the initial plan to the methodology used to the detailed test results. These records should include successes, failures, timestamps, and impromptu changes made during testing. Additionally, we should detail what we did correctly and where we fell short as a reference for future tests.

We can use this data to assess and improve the robustness of the disaster recovery process. Moreover, these reports can help to ensure that new staff members involved in disaster recovery can access a detailed timeline of how procedures change or evolve.

4. Keep everyone updated

We must ensure that all staff and stakeholders thoroughly understand the processes. They should be kept aware of any changes affecting the disaster recovery plan, including changes to  the testing processes, and receive all updated reports and documentation related to the plan.

5. Define metrics

Without disaster recovery metrics, we cannot accurately judge our plans’ successes or failures. Defining these metrics helps us to formulate tangible goals for different areas of our business, ensuring an accurate picture of how each operation weathers the disaster.

While each organization will need varying metrics, there are two principal goals we should include. The recovery time objective (RTO) is the allowable time that a service can remain offline. The recovery point objective (RPO) determines how frequently we should back up our systems to prevent data loss. To establish this metric, we can evaluate how outdated data can be before recovering it becomes too costly or resource-intensive.

6. Evaluate the results

Finally, we need to conduct a risk assessment based on the results of our testing. Disaster recovery testing reveals risk factors in our recovery plan that threaten the functioning or reputation of our business. Moreover, risk assessment is an opportunity to analyze and evaluate uncovered risks to formulate a mitigation plan.

7. Test your disaster recovery plan

While creating a disaster recovery plan is critical, its usefulness is meaningless if we don’t test its merit. A disaster recovery plan ensures that an organization remains afloat during or after a disaster, and this plan can’t remain static. Performing frequent, well-documented testing helps us identify gaps in our disaster recovery plan so we can adapt and refine it before disaster strikes.

Maintaining an effective disaster recovery plan hinges on how thorough the plan is. It’s vital to test regularly to ensure that our plan evolves with any changes within the business. Think of testing not as a one-time event but as a cycle: test, update, and retest. The more we test our disaster recovery plan, the more we know that it will be reliable and effective long-term.

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