Disaster Recovery Testing and Why Your Business Needs It

No matter how reliable hardware and software have become today, machines are still vulnerable to failure for different reasons. When they do crash, systems can go offline and data can become unavailable for long periods of time. And even when systems are brought back online, data is sometimes impossible to restore and is irrevocably lost. The most reliable way to mitigate these risks is to put in place a comprehensive disaster recovery (DR) plan.

A disaster recovery plan is a set of procedures that must be undertaken to restore data and workloads within set time limits. This detailed DR checklist includes mechanisms put in place in advance to prepare for different disaster scenarios.

Statistics show that 95% of companies worldwide invest considerable resources in planning for the worst, including in DR. However, only 78% of them use disaster recovery testing to verify that their plan actually meets the objectives. Read on to learn what is disaster recovery testing and how to develop a DR testing strategy for your organization to ensure system availability and business continuity through any incident.

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What Is Disaster Recovery Testing?

Disaster recovery testing is the verification of the DR plan steps to ensure that the plan can be implemented successfully and critical applications and data can be restored after a disruption. Testing the disaster recovery plan aims to ensure that business operations and critical services can be maintained during and after an incident.

Disaster recovery testing in its most comprehensive form involves simulating an IT failure or any other type of business disruption to assess the DR plan in place. The main disaster recovery test objectives are to check if an organization can meet the recovery time objectives (RTOs) and recovery point objectives (RPOs) set in the disaster recovery plan. You should understand RPOs vs RTOs and set them for each application and VM. The DR test also provides insights into how the system behaves if any part of your infrastructure becomes unavailable. This information can help you refine your organization’s DR plan and fix any weak links before a real disruption happens.

Keep in mind that a disaster recovery test plan should not be limited to the technical components of the DR plan. It is just as important to test that each employee involved in disaster recovery understands their role and has access to the resources they need to perform their job during a disruption.

Disaster recovery plan testing should be conducted regularly, preferably a few times per year. IT environments change regularly with software decommissioned, new applications introduced, or hardware replaced, which in turn call for the appropriate amendments to your DR plan. The DR testing process can be part of maintenance routines and staff training.

Why Disaster Recovery Testing Is Important

The risk of not testing a disaster recovery plan is loss of data and access to systems. You can insure your business against losses, but no insurance policy can replace the data lost as a result of an incident or the repercussions of prolonged downtime on a business. The only way to truly ensure uptime and availability is to create a DR plan and run regular tests. If you are still not convinced that testing the disaster recovery plan is necessary, here’s a list of what DR testing helps you achieve before an incident occurs:

  • Discover gaps or flaws in a DR plan
  • Make sure that you have the right sequence of actions during recovery
  • Verify that recovery objectives are realistic and can be met
  • Minimize data loss
  • Run through DR team actions and ensure that each member understands their role
  • Introduce updates and fixes before it’s too late

Components of a Disaster Recovery Test Process

A DR test should be planned to ensure that it brings results and helps improve DR readiness. This means that disaster recovery test objectives should be clear, and you should have a specified timetable for how often to conduct tests, the criteria for success, evaluation of results, and steps to address gaps and any DR failures. Let’s go over these components in more detail.

Set the DR test scope

The DR testing scope involves a set of assumptions and expectations that should be met during the testing process. Setting the testing scope should include:

  • Identifying the systems and functions that will be included in DR testing
  • Defining what kind of disaster recovery process will be tested: recovery of full machines from backups, failover to a DR site, etc.
  • Establishing exceptions and limitations in advance, because some components of your DR plan may not be executed as planned
  • Specifying the departments and staff included in the DR testing testing process
  • Defining the scenarios that will be tested: primary site failure, ransomware attack, connection lost, server/database failure, etc.

Reviewing the disaster recovery plan

Before testing, you should review the DR plan. DR testing should be conducted in an organized manner by focusing on the organization’s policies and practices. Thus, the disaster recovery team should meet with senior management to review the existing DR plan and determine any changes or updates that should be implemented based on the current state of the business. These include factors such as the introduction of new hardware or software products, business expansion, budget cuts, staff turnover, etc.

DR testing frequency

With current IT environments being highly dynamic, determining the review frequency is critical for keeping your disaster recovery plan constantly updated. Some organizations review and update their DR plans once per year. However, the most efficient strategy is to update (and re-test) your DR plan whenever mission-critical components of your organization undergo changes. While disaster recovery testing can prove time-consuming and costly, you should create your testing schedule on the basis of business needs and resources, considering the scope of DR processes.

Test success criteria

You need to set the criteria that determine whether your VM disaster recovery tests are successful or not. Ideally, VM DR testing can be considered passed when a DR plan is proven to be valid and viable.

However, disaster recovery testing can be deemed successful even when a DR plan has failed to pass the test. This scenario allows you to identify flaws in a DR plan prior to actual disaster and address them in the next iteration of the plan. Essentially, test success criteria are defined on the basis of predetermined expectations, which should be clearly expressed in the disaster recovery test plan to avoid any confusion.

Evaluation of test results

The results of a VM disaster recovery testing process provide a general overview of the DR strategies currently used in the company. The recovery team can evaluate the test results and come up with improvements or adjustments for the DR plan on the basis of the identified issues.

The following metrics should also be considered when evaluating DR test results:

  • How much time elapsed before mission-critical activities were restored
  • How well each step of the plan was executed (whether any errors and delays occurred
  • How many operations were successfully completed during the DR testing process

Changes and updates should be made and tested to improve the DR plan. The goal is to provide a more effective and manageable recovery process.

Post-test review of the DR plan

After running a disaster recovery plan in test mode, it is advisable to review your DR plan once again. Strengths and weaknesses, as well as any unexpected results, should be recorded during the disaster recovery test process and their impact on business continuity should be measured. This can significantly improve your DR strategies and boost overall performance. Steps to address gaps and failures should be detailed and added to the next iteration of the DR plan.

Factors to Consider Before Testing the Disaster Recovery Plan

  • Number of people on the DR team: There should be at least two people in a disaster recovery team so as to avoid the problem of a “single point of failure”. With multiple team members, if one person can’t be reached during a disaster, you can rest assured that there is a substitute with the required knowledge and access to the DR site.
  • Time of day chosen for disaster recovery testing: Generally, DR testing is executed outside of working hours, as the process is time-consuming and could interrupt business operations or affect overall performance. However, these test results might not be indicative of how the disaster recovery plan would function under actual working conditions. Testing the components of a VM DR plan in isolation during working hours could be an ideal solution. This helps reduce the risk of system overload that full testing presents.
  • Changes in team or in IT infrastructure: Before testing the disaster recovery plan, consider the various factors that could render your DR plan incomplete and outdated. As mentioned above, these factors can include new infrastructure components, staff changes, among other things. Keep the DR team apprised of new changes to the environment and send brief memos notifying staff of the latest updates.

Disaster Recovery Testing Methods

In this section, we cover the four most common disaster recovery testing methods. Consider them closely before deciding which provides the right approach for your organization or whether a combination of these approaches can be used.

Checklist testing

A checklist test of a disaster recovery plan involves reviewing the list of requirements and conditions that must be met. This review is a great starting point as it is the most basic option and involves analyzing the current plan and looking over every point in order to spot the outdated or missing parts. This means verifying, for example, that the backup site is of sufficient size, that the recovery team is notified of the latest updates, that the data protection solution is running, etc.

By using this DR testing method, the recovery team can quickly review the DR plan, ensure that every component is in place, and identify any missing components in the DR strategy. This procedure can be conducted in minimal time and without heavy staff involvement.

Walkthrough DR testing

The purpose of this strategy is to verbally walk through every step of a VM disaster recovery plan and identify any issues and deficiencies. Here, all members of a recovery team take part in the review and discussion of the DR plan, coming up with recommendations.

It is essential to ensure that everyone has a strong understanding of the plan and is aware of their responsibilities during a DR event. This method only involves a verbal discussion of the DR process. The technological aspects of your DR plan are not actually tested or approved in walkthrough testing.

Tabletop/simulation DR testing

For a tabletop test, the organization goes through a simulated disaster scenario to identify whether a DR plan is adequate and the defined goals can be met. This DR testing method can be considered an extension of the walkthrough test. All team members are presented with various disaster scenarios, which they review by discussing how they would act in the circumstances. This allows you to test the preparedness of your staff in a more realistic setting and check whether your disaster recovery plan can deal with unexpected issues.

  • Tabletop run-through. The DR team conducts a plan walk-through step by step as if a real disaster has happened. This disaster recovery testing method helps identify potential blind spots and hidden issues.
  • Scenario simulation. This method involves executing the DR plan in a test environment with no disruption to the production workflow. The simulation is run according to specific recovery scenarios.
  • Full disaster recovery simulation. This DR testing method is similar to the simulation described above, but this time the scenario includes the total failure of operations in your main site. The method involves attempting a full recovery at an offsite location.

Parallel testing

Parallel testing allows you to test the functionality of your recovery systems to determine whether they can execute business operations and secure critical processes. The primary systems are not included in the disaster recovery testing process, as they are expected to support the full production workload. This is a safe and non-disruptive way to test technical systems.

Full-interruption testing

A full-interruption DR test provides thorough testing of your VM DR plan. In this case, your DR site assumes the full production workload and the primary site is shut down. The goal is to recover as quickly as possible using the corporate disaster recovery plan. The execution of a full-interruption test should be well thought out as normal operations can be disrupted and it is quite costly.

Every one of the recovery processes should be documented. Identify all issues and concerns during DR test execution so as to address them later. The actions of the recovery team should be closely observed to pinpoint any potential gaps in your VM DR plan. Full-interruption testing is also an appropriate disaster recovery testing method to check whether your DR objectives are acceptable and achievable.

You might consider conducting the full-interruption test without notifying your staff in advance. This allows you to more accurately assess the preparedness of your team in case of disaster.

Useful Tips for Disaster Recovery Testing

Testing a DR plan is an important task that can seem overwhelming at times. The following DR testing tips can help save you time and reduce stress:

  • After installing any new hardware or software products, immediately test them to verify their functionality and integrity. This also helps you to find the product’s RTO and learn how it might perform during DR procedures.
  • Perform a risk analysis (RA) and a business impact analysis (BIA) before designing your DR plan. Constantly review the results of these analyses, and if any changes are made, consider how they should be reflected in your DR strategy.
  • Testing should be executed in circumstances as similar as possible to a DR scenario. By simulating a real-life disaster scenario, you can see how well employees perform their duties in DR circumstances. This also helps reduce stress among your staff, as employees get more accustomed to various DR scenarios and learn what is expected of them.
  • Invite independent observers to review your DR plan and monitor the testing process. This approach ensures that no shortcuts are taken by employees to rapidly complete the tests. Moreover, independent observers can then help rewrite a DR plan and improve it, often identifying issues that are not visible to those within the organization.
  • Have a complete list of all the applications in your infrastructure. This list should include the details of each application, their configurations, the contact details of the application owners, and your contract/licensing details.
  • At the primary stages, DR testing should be conducted in parts and after business hours so as not to overload the system. After identifying any deficiencies and improving the plan accordingly, you can consider running further full tests in business hours.

Disaster Recovery with NAKIVO Backup & Replication

NAKIVO Backup & Replication is a reliable backup and disaster recovery solution. The solution allows you to automate backup, replication and disaster recovery processes while ensuring data integrity across various platforms (physical, virtual, or cloud). The NAKIVO solution contains VM replication, VM failover, failback and Site Recovery features for disaster recovery. Moreover, you can test a disaster recovery sequence to ensure that everything is configured correctly.

Running Site Recovery jobs in test mode

NAKIVO Backup & Replication allows you to run site recovery jobs in test mode to check whether all system components can be easily restored during a disaster recovery event and the stipulated DR objectives can be met. This test does not disrupt production workloads. A Site Recovery job in test mode can be scheduled as well as run on demand.

The following walkthrough tells you how to run a Site Recovery job manually in test mode. Note that a Site Recovery job has to be configured first.

  1. In the Jobs dashboard, select a site recovery job and then click the Run Job button. The dropdown menu gives you two options. Click Test site recovery job.

How to start disaster recovery testing

  1. In the dialog box that is launched, you can configure your RTO metrics. Define the maximum permissible amount of time your Site Recovery job can take to complete. If the test run exceeds the RTO value you input, the test is considered failed. You can also disable this option.

Disaster recovery testing includes testing recovery time objective

  1. Finally, click Test to run the job.

Options for test schedule

You can also configure test scheduling options when you configure a Site Recovery job. These options work when you run this job in test mode.

You can schedule disaster recovery testing when configuring a site recovery job

Email report

With this option enabled, selected recipients receive a test report every time the job is completed. You need to configure email notification settings at the 5. Options tab before you click Finish.

Configuring Site Recovery job options for failback

You can also download a report as a PDF or CSV file directly from a web browser. Just right-click a Site Recovery job and hit Site Recovery Job Report.

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