With IT ingrained in nearly every business process, it pays to give careful attention to disaster recovery (DR) and business continuity (BC) planning. Although the two are often linked, they are not the same. Exploring the differences can help ensure your operation will continue if the unthinkable happens.

DR is a set of processes, policies and procedures for recovering a company's technology infrastructure after a disaster. BC is broader, specifying the key processes a company needs to perform after a disaster to stay in operation. "When you talk to C-level executives, business continuity to them means devising alternative ways to run the processes that enable the company to keep making money," says Brian Renken, solution advisor for Dell SMB.

This mean that IT's disaster recovery processes must be unified with the goals for business continuity. "IT has traditionally done DR, but it's really important to link more closely with the business," says Greg Schulz, founder and senior advisor at the Server and Storage I/O Group. "By having more awareness of BC planning, IT can truly support the business objectives if a disaster strikes." Often such collaboration will involve significant trade-offs.

Carefully evaluate trade-offs

Consider, for example, a small California-based tax accounting firm that wanted to protect its business against the possibility of a major earthquake. The initial DR plan proposed replicating the company's entire IT infrastructure at a site in Arizona. When it became clear that the company's customers would also be affected by the quake, and not need full service right away, the cost of the full DR site was overkill. A better plan was to deploy a secondary server off-site that would provide access to the firm's data base of tax records, the information customers were most likely to need during an outage.

This illustrates the idea that BC planning doesn't necessarily mean restoring processes to full effectiveness, but to an acceptable level for temporary operation. It could entail the HR manager writing checks by hand if the payroll system is down. And it doesn't make sense to fully restore servers and applications if employees can't get to the office, unless they can log in from home PCs. Naturally, IT would provide the remote access technology and security. Similar trade-offs relate to data recovery. Although not losing a single byte of data in an outage would be laudable, working with the business to establish a realistic recovery point would be more cost effective.

Business continuity is a company-wide problem with an IT component. Says Renken, "The best advice is to work closely with the business to understand key BC processes and make sure the IT part is covered."

Disaster recovery/business continuity action items to remember:

  • Align with the business: Before setting DR processes, check the BC plans of your business counterparts.
  • Follow the money: BC focuses on revenue generation after a disaster. IT DR processes must support this priority.
  • Evaluate the trade-offs: Full recovery of data and systems is ideal, but it may be cost prohibitive.
  • Consider all options: In a pinch, manual processes can serve until full service is restored.


--Silicon Valley-based freelancer Howard Baldwin has been writing about business and technology since 1987.