Last week, an outage at one of Yahoo's data centers left millions of Yahoo Mail users unable to access their email accounts for an entire week. When they were finally able to log in, they were greeted with an empty inbox, as the outage rendered much of their mail temporarily missing or undelivered. While consumers missed personal emails, business users missed orders, messages from customers and other critical emails at a very inopportune time — two weeks before Christmas. Such a disaster caused delays in business and, in some cases, loss in revenue.
In addition to being an infuriating time for users, Yahoo's massive outage serves as a wake-up call for business users everywhere who considerably rely on a single service to run their business — particularly those dependent on cloud computing. While not having email access for a week causes a major disruptions in business, a cloud outage of similar magnitude can completely cripple a company, resulting in significant data and financial loss. Nonetheless, unlike relying on a service like Yahoo Mail, there are several things cloud-dependent business users can to do prepare for and mitigate damage when disaster strikes. [8 Reasons to Fear the Cloud]
"Unfortunately, the [Yahoo] event highlighted a fact that is not considered often when deciding to use cloud services," said Kemal Balioglu, vice president of products at Quorum, a data recovery solutions provider. That is, being completely dependent on the cloud is a risky move. "In pure cloud solutions, there is not much that a business can do if the cloud provider simply falls off the grid," he said. "The 100 percent dependency on the cloud provider constitutes a single point of failure."
The secret is to be prepared before such an outage even happens, Balioglu said.
Know your cloud provider's backup policy
One way to be prepared for a cloud outage is to know exactly how your provider will handle your data in the event of a disaster.
"First, the business can select a provider that has a disaster recovery plan that ensures that your systems will be back online within a certain timeframe," Balioglu said.
Next, business should dig deeper and get all the necessary details regarding how they are protected. Although many cloud providers claim to have their client's back during an outage, it is up to the business to determine whether there is indeed a reliable backup plan in place.
"Become familiar with the cloud provider's backup policy," said Jennifer Walzer, CEO of BUMI (Backup My Info!), a cloud backup and recovery provider.
Walzer recommends asking specific questions, such as, "Is the data replicated to another location?" "How long are backups retained?" "What's the process of restoring data once you have it?" and "What's the turnaround time for requesting a copy of your backups?" It's also critical to ask in the format in which backup copies will be sent. "Some [vendors] only provide a single large .CSV file, and it's up to the client to make sense of it all," she said.
Maintain your own cloud backup
In addition to depending on their provider's disaster recovery systems, businesses should also be self-reliant and maintain their own backups.
"Many companies mistakenly believe that because their data is in the cloud, it's automatically safe," Walzer said. "Cloud outages occur more often than you think, and it's your responsibility to make sure your data is backed up properly."
There are several ways for businesses to maintain their own backups. The simplest and least expensive way is to go straight to the source. "Check to see if the vendor allows you to regularly sync a local copy," Walzer said.
Another option is to back up data in multiple data centers so that it can be quickly and easily restored if one location fails.
"We always advise any sized business to take a multidestination approach to backing up their endpoint data, including in private or public clouds," said Ann Fellman, director of product marketing at Code42, the creators of CrashPlan, an online backup solution.
Choosing a secondary backup source, however, requires some strategic planning. For instance, one of the most important considerations is the backup's location. "Specifically, small businesses should ensure that one of those cloud server locations is offsite to protect against an onsite disaster or outage," Fellman said.
Furthermore, just like vetting a cloud provider's backup policies, businesses should also do their homework on a backup provider's services to prevent any unwelcome surprises.
"Small businesses should strongly evaluate an endpoint backup solution's ability to manage all file sizes and types, ideally with unlimited total file capacity as to not limit what gets backed up and what doesn't," Fellman said.
Other features to look for include 24/7 customer support, cross-platform and operating system flexibility, and ready access to data and files from any device — computer, laptop, tablet or phone, Fellman said. Hybrid cloud solutions also enable businesses to become more independent with their cloud computing needs.
Implement a hybrid cloud solution
For businesses that have the resources, a hybrid cloud solution provides an extra layer of protection.
"To avoid full dependency, businesses can implement a hybrid cloud solution with an on-site appliance that is connected to a cloud backend," Balioglu said.
In a hybrid cloud solution, sensitive data is kept in a private cloud, while other data is backed up in a public cloud. Neither cloud will be on the same server, minimizing the risk of full data loss in the event of an outage.
The drawback, however, is that hybrid clouds are costly. "This solution will be more expensive than relying on just the cloud provider and each organization needs to decide if this is worth the cost of losing business [during an outage] for several days or weeks," he said.
Perform test restores
Like Yahoo Mail users who were left unable to access their email for a week, businesses facing a cloud outage want to know when their data will be restored. But in order to regain access, data restore systems must actually be functional. Regardless of which method of preparation a business implements, regular tests are required to ensure critical data can be restored.
"The worst time to test your data recovery is during an actual disaster," Walzer said. She recommends running test restores on a regular basis to make sure cloud-based data can be recovered in a disaster.