For all organisations, the impact that a disaster can have on its business is significant. From small events such as a lost e-mail or corrupted files through to large-scale problems caused by fire or flooding, the cost of downtime can be huge. This can be particularly expensive, affecting not only the company’s brand but also the ability to serve customers, says Ian Masters, Double-Take Software.

Investing in business continuity has traditionally been an insurance policy: a continuity strategy aims to prevent problems affecting the business in the first place, and then helps the organisation to recover quickly in the event of something going wrong. This strategy will cover the people, processes and technology involved across the business, and provide a clear plan on how to deal with problems that could seriously affect operations.

This approach is changing: the evolution of IT and using technologies such as virtualisation, data replication and Internet-based applications has meant that this traditional approach has also had to adapt. Secondly, the impact of the current economic crisis has led to customers re-examining their spending, and looking at what opportunities there are to get more value from their investment. Business continuity has to provide this extra return back to the organisation, rather than simply being an insurance policy if something goes wrong.

Most organisations have previously used tape as a method to protect their systems in the event of a failure. While it is still an effective tool, it is a labour-intensive one and recovery can be slow. Using disk-based systems to store back-up data can shrink the amount of time that it takes to restore after a failure, while the costs associated with disk storage have come down dramatically as well.

This approach can also be more cost-effective than tape, particularly if an organisation has data spread across multiple offices. By centralising and collating data at the head office, rather than having to manage tape libraries, backup is more efficient and the recovery process easier.

Virtualisation is another good example of how IT can improve overall business continuity strategies. This involves splitting the applications and operating systems that a company would use to run its IT services from the physical hardware. In essence, this makes the IT resources work much harder, as well as being more flexible in how they can be deployed.

From a business continuity standpoint, this additional flexibility means that organisations that could not afford a full continuity strategy, or were relying on tape-based back-up alone can now afford a better degree of protection against failure.

Looking forward, organisations are demanding more of their business continuity investment. Rather than protecting systems against failure, businesses can use this outlay to improve on how IT resources are used in general. This approach involves understanding the workloads that are present within the business, and how to optimise IT to support them.

A case in point is applications that are used infrequently, or require different levels of resources. Instead of buying servers and storage for that application at full capacity, IT can instead look at apportioning the amount of computing power that is required as it is needed. When the job is completed, the level of resources can be scaled back and given over to other tasks that require them. This increases the efficiency of IT, as well as helping to reduce the capital expenditure on IT hardware.

Secondly, this approach can assist organisations if they are moving their workloads. Many businesses know how hard it can be to migrate to a new data centre or to a different IT platform, but it is a necessary step to remain competitive. However, this also entails large amounts of planned downtime for the business while the upgrade is carried out.

Using the company’s investment in its business continuity strategy, it is possible to reduce this amount of downtime significantly. Most importantly, users will be much less affected by the switch-over: instead of the change-over having to be completed while users are unable to work, systems can remain available to them up to the point where the business shifts over to the new data centre or IT resource. This improves performance as well as reducing the impact on the business from the move.

Business continuity planning continues to be a necessary part of the IT strategy. However, it also has to adapt to the changing requirements of the organisation, and play a greater role in the success that companies are aiming for. By changing focus and looking at how availability and IT skills can improve overall performance, the return on investment from business continuity does not have to wait until a disaster comes.