Disaster recovery automation tools gaining traction

As new disaster recovery automation tools emerge, vendors and industry analysts recognize a growing demand for simplifying what can be a tedious process.

Disaster recovery is a prime target for automation as businesses' downtime tolerance and overall DR know-how have lowered.

A big IT problem these days is that while organizations have more data and that data is growing faster than ever, fewer administrators focus solely on storing and managing that information. This age of specialization calls for products that require less manual intervention. Industry experts and vendors see demand for tools that build in disaster recovery automation to handle tedious tasks and reduce downtime.

Covering a skill gap

Disaster recovery (DR) automation isn't just useful for reducing downtime. Marc Staimer, president of Dragon Slayer Consulting, said automation is making DR simpler, which helps make up for a lack of IT expertise. He said this is especially important among SMBs because small business owners and IT administrators are often the same person. Staimer said he has rarely seen a small business with more than two people on their IT team.

But the growing skill gap isn't limited to SMBs. Staimer said among enterprises, new administrators entering the workforce lack the skills to do their jobs across multiple IT disciplines, which include backup, cybersecurity and DR. Meanwhile, retiring administrators are leaving the workforce and taking their skills with them.

The focal point in college nowadays isn't fixing hardware or doing backup.
Marc StaimerPresident, Dragon Slayer Consulting

"The focal point in college nowadays isn't fixing hardware or doing backup," Staimer said. "To make up for it, software vendors are making things simpler to use."

Greater simplification in DR products is a logical trend, said Vinny Choinski, senior lab analyst at IT analyst firm Enterprise Strategy Group. Administrators responsible for DR will likely also work with hypervisors, Choinski said. For example, VMware's ability to let users manage and move VMs optimally and automatically sets high expectations for how other IT workloads are handled.

"DR has to be at that kind of level," Choinski said.

The shift away from IT specialization in favor of IT "versatilists" also contributes to a growing skill gap. Staimer said it is getting harder and harder to find organizations with dedicated backup administrators. Instead, businesses often have IT roles for which backup is a responsibility, but that same staff member also has other, more business-focused duties. Automation tools and other simplification methods help workers in these roles do their job better, but it doesn't fix an underlying problem of IT expertise slowly bleeding out of the workforce.

"They want everyone to be able to do everything," Staimer said.

Screenshot of AppKeeper
AppKeeper will automatically restart services or reboot instances in Amazon EC2.

Disaster recovery automation in action

This trend is prompting vendors to bring out more disaster recovery automation tools. These include ways to monitor when conditions call for a recovery, and then automating recovery without administration interaction.

An example of this is Rubrik's ability to detect ransomware encryption and automatically recover to a point before the attack. DR automation also applies to DR testing, in which failover tests are done in a nondisruptive manner. Products from Unitrends, Acronis and Asigra have this capability.

SIOS AppKeeper, a tool that automatically reboots frozen or failed applications in Amazon EC2 instances without manual intervention, rolled out in the U.S. at the end of January 2020. SIOS first launched AppKeeper in Japan in 2017.

Michael Bilancieri, senior vice president of products and marketing at SIOS, described manually maintaining high availability (HA) for EC2 as a time-consuming and error-prone process. It involves the use of monitoring tools such as Amazon CloudWatch and AWS Auto Recovery to track the health of EC2 environments and then custom scripting restart or reboot functions when failures are detected. AppKeeper is meant to take the maintenance of those scripts out of the equation.

Bilancieri said customers have started to demand HA for their EC2 instances, even if the applications running on EC2 aren't mission-critical. He said there's lower downtime tolerance in general, and automation is the key to providing that.

"Automation brings downtime to a minimum. If you don't automate it, something can fail and not be found," Bilancieri said.

Many SMA Technologies' OpCon workload automation platform customers use it for DR-related purposes. Ben Demaree, director of product management at SMA Technologies, said a large number of OpCon customers use it to failover specific applications to ensure they stay active, but some use it for full failovers. He said one SMA Technologies customer that manages data for about 300 credit unions uses OpCon to automate a full failover between two sites every six months, alternating production environments between the two locations.

Demaree said DR is a common use case for automation tools because there are many manual steps involved with failing over. He said the key benefit of automating all those manual steps is reducing downtime, which can be costly.

"Workload automation plays nicely into the DR space because there's a lot to orchestrate," Demaree said.

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