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5 Ways to Improve Your MSP Service Level Agreement (SLA)

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5 Ways to Improve Your MSP Service Level Agreements (SLAs)

SLAs are the foundation of your MSP business. They are essential to building strong client relationships and must be clear, reasonable and well-constructed.

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Why MSPs Must Regularly Test Backups

Posted August 18, 2016by Mary McCoy

Imagine you’re a trapeze artist for the Ringling Bros. Circus. Your brilliant blue tights shimmer as you mount the fifty-foot platform and prepare to dazzle the crowd with your aerial routine. You see the swinging bar arcing back towards you like a pendulum and crouch, mentally judging the point in time you need to leap to grab hold of it. Almost there…just a little closer…NOW!

But what if you miscalculate the distance? What if your grip slips and you plummet toward the ground, a glittery blur of Spandex and Lycra? You need to know a safety net is there to catch your fall.

Better yet, you need to know the safety net will support you should you fall. Otherwise, it’s not actually a safety net.

By offering backup and disaster recovery (BDR) as one of your managed IT services, you're selling a safety net to your end clients, but how are you proving to them that the net will actually work? Should a client experience a service disruption or hardware failure, for instance, they’ll need to be able to quickly recover data with an optimal recovery point objective (RPO), so as to restore uptime and profitability. To increase the reliability of your BDR solution, you have to routinely test your backups. 

When it comes to your BDR strategy, are you taking a leap of faith?

Hardware fails. Software fails. People fail. The point is that you cannot always count on data to be backed up properly. Backups can fail for a number of reasons, but there are a few that are the most common. For one, agent communication issues can interfere with backups. Misconfigurations like this can prevent backups from successfully completing. Indeed, often data is only partially backed up. Additionally, perhaps one of your technicians has also gone to run a backup on a protected machine, only to find that it’s offline. Whether service is temporarily disrupted or you’re faced with a direr situation, like a server crashing, any actively running backups will fail. Lastly, backing up is pointless if you’ve exceeded storage capacity. While these are only a handful of culprits for backup failure, they prove that you can’t just blindly assume that you’re capturing valid backups 100 percent of the time.

Test to Verify That Backups Work

Testing backups helps to hedge risk and reduce data loss. If a backup doesn’t work, testing is the only sure way to determine this without suffering any client fallout or blows to your reputation. It goes without saying that the only time you want to encounter backup failure is during the testing phase when nothing’s at stake.Let’s say a client requires more retention points than the average small business. It doesn’t matter how frequently you schedule backups to run if those backups aren’t good. In this case, if a number of these backups fail and data is lost as a result, your client will not be able to access any file changes or data created after the last sucessful backup unless locally stored. Every other backup after that doesn't count. Rather than take a chance with the safety of your clients’ data and the financial stability of your business, eliminate the uncertainty by testing backups to ensure that the safety net will hold up.

Test to Verify Virtual Machine (VM) Performance

Virtualization is yet another safety net during the backup process. It’s critical that you’re able to virtually boot a backup image in disaster scenarios and instances with extended downtime. Even if the backup itself passes the test, you can’t always restore that backup. You have to have a bootable VM. Recall our earlier example of a server crashing and assume that the hardware must be replaced. In response to the outage, you’d need to virtually bring the data back up to maintain business continuity. The impacted client can’t afford to wait for you to deliver new hardware in order to access necessary files and resume normal business operations. Similarly, a hardware issue may require technicians to perform extensive onsite work on the protected machine. Until that can be arranged, your clients must be able to maintain profitability and continue working without any disturbances. In spinning up a virtual instance of that machine, you can ensure their business efficiency while working to correct the larger issue. In testing that the VM can actually be generated, you’ll be able to increase a client’s disaster readiness. Along these lines, it’s important that you don’t just test to determine if the VM will boot, but also that you log in and check the VM’s applications and overall performance.

Test for Peace of Mind

Trust is central to the MSP/SMB relationship. When a client picks you to be their managed IT services provider, they expect you to help make their job easier. With you at the helm, IT is one less thing these SMBs need to worry about. That’s the true value of an MSP to SMBs. In handing over control of their IT environments, business owners take a calculated risk. You have to do everything in your power to prove to them that the risk is worth the reward.

Think about why you offer BDR services in the first place. You provide clients with the peace of mind that should a data disaster situation occur–maybe an employee accidentally deletes an entire folder’s worth of business-critical data–you’ll be able to restore the data they need and let them get back to work quickly. The same logic applies for testing backups. Knowing that they can fail or that data isn’t always restorable, implement a backup plan for your backups. Never feed clients empty promises that their data is protected, only to come up short later. To increase client loyalty and retention, strengthen existing relationships and save face, honesty is the best policy. By routinely testing backups, you can do your part to make sure agreed-upon service levels still hold true. Testing allows you to work out any kinks in your backup configuration or processes, so that clients don’t suffer in the event of an outage. And being able to offer clients that extra peace of mind helps you to continually reinforce your value as their strategic advisor. Basically, like Ronald Reagan, clients live by a “trust, but verify” outlook when it comes to business.

Test to Improve Disaster Recovery (DR) Processes

Practice makes perfect. Just as actors regularly rehearse their lines before opening night, so too must you hone your craft. The more experience you have managing a backup environment, the higher the likelihood of succeeding when it’s suddenly show time. Testing assists in this regard because it forces you to evaluate and improve your entire backup and restore processes. Perhaps you find that backup tests fail for certain types of protected machines and choose not to offer BDR support for these endpoints. Cheap hardware or poorly sized appliances are two major reasons why backups fail. When entering into an arrangement, clients should already have or be willing to invest in the recommended, reliable hardware. Pay particular attention to your DR process as well. You should know the first step to take in a disaster situation and outline responsible parties for each aspect of the business continuity plan. How long does it take to restore clients' uptime? Testing backups enables you to revisit your DR process and fine-tune it to maximize efficiency.

Test to Win More Revenue

Finally, explore the benefit of offering DR testing as an additional BDR service, thus growing your monthly recurring revenue (MRR) and your bottom line. Many MSPs have had tremendous success providing “fire drill” BDR tests to clients. Including this value-add service in your IT portfolio helps you to differentiate yourself from the competition, justify additional service expenses and test the reliability of your backup process as a whole. This is an ideal way to capture more revenue because it can be done quickly and with little resistance from clients. Alternatively, you might feel pressured into increasing your prices or adding additional products to your technology stack, without being fully capable of supporting them. Instead, find a way to transform the best practices you should already be following, like testing backups, into a new line of revenue for your MSP business!

So back to our original analogy–safety nets are the ultimate catch-all for uneasiness and faulty execution. There’s always the possibility that a trapeze artist won’t clear the swinging bar or make it to the other end of the tightrope. Similarly, MSPs face the possibility that their backups will fail, sending clients’ business efficiency and their own favorable standing into a tailspin. Rather than leave it to chance, testing backups helps you ensure that all components of your BDR software and process work harmoniously to provide clients the proactive data management, protection and business continuity they need to be successful.

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Meet Mary! Mary McCoy is a Senior Demand Generation Programs Manager at Continuum, where she's worked for over two years. Mary has consulted with hundreds of partners, lending website, blog and social media support. Before that, she graduated from the University of Virginia (Wahoowa!) with a BA in Economics and served as digital marketing intern for Citi Performing Arts Center (Citi Center), spearheading the nonprofit’s #GivingTuesday social media campaign. Like her school’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, Mary believes learning never ends. She considers herself a passionate, lifelong student of content creation and inbound marketing.

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