In an era where cyber threats are increasingly sophisticated and unpredictable, prioritizing risk management has become critical. Cybersecurity breaches, whether from malware, ransomware, or other attacks, can inflict substantial damage on your organization’s infrastructure and reputation. However, it’s not just about cyber threats. Natural calamities, technical failures, and unexpected outages also present significant risks that, although beyond your control, can severely disrupt your operations.

Given these diverse and pressing challenges, organizations must fortify their defenses with a comprehensive approach to business continuity and disaster recovery. A well-structured business continuity plan doesn’t just prepare your organization to weather a disaster; it also aims to minimize operational downtime and mitigate the financial repercussions that might follow.

In this guide, we’re going to delve into the process of developing an effective disaster recovery plan (DRP), guided by the principles of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). We’ll also provide a detailed template to ensure that your organization is well-prepared and resilient, covering all bases to withstand and thrive in the face of potential disasters.

What Is a NIST-Guided Disaster Recovery Plan?

A Disaster Recovery Plan (DRP), as defined within the framework of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is your organization’s strategic document outlining the process for recovering data and critical functions following a disruptive event. Disasters can range from cybersecurity incidents like data breaches or ransomware attacks to natural disasters, technical malfunctions, or any unforeseen event that hinders your organization’s operational capabilities.

Incorporating NIST guidelines into your DRP ensures that the plan aligns with industry-standard best practices for risk management and recovery. The NIST Special Publication 800-34, “Contingency Planning Guide for Federal Information Systems,” provides a comprehensive outline for creating and implementing effective recovery strategies, making it an invaluable resource for shaping your organization’s approach.

Your NIST-informed DRP operates in tandem with your Business Continuity Plan (BCP). While the BCP focuses on maintaining essential functions during a disruption, the DRP is dedicated to restoring your organization’s systems and operations to their full capacity post-disaster. This duo of plans is essential for not only safeguarding your data and systems but also for ensuring a swift and efficient return to normalcy.

Implementing a DRP based on NIST principles is crucial for several reasons. It provides a structured and systematic approach to recovery, ensuring that every aspect of your organization’s response is calculated and effective. It helps to minimize downtime, preserve data integrity, and maintain customer trust and regulatory compliance. Moreover, it equips your organization with the tools and knowledge to navigate the aftermath of an incident confidently.

What considerations should go into disaster recovery planning?

Your disaster recovery plan should begin by assessing disaster-related risks and then performing a business impact analysis for your critical applications. Your plan should also list the steps necessary to restore those mission-critical operations if they suddenly cease. Then, outline how you plan to minimize the effects of a disaster.

The plan should also include “recovery point objectives” (RPOs). These are the points of system operation that you want to return to as part of data recovery lifecycle. For example, “When we restore operations from an outage, we want all the data and IT functionality we had one hour before systems went offline.” 

The plan should also include recovery time objectives (RTOs), which define how quickly you want to restore operations: “We want to restore normal operations within three hours of the incident.”

When developing a disaster recovery strategy, consider the following critical information:

  • What is your budget to develop and implement a DRP?
  • Is there any insurance coverage in place to supplement financial recovery? To insure offsite storage? To insure your business in case of cyber attacks such as ransomware?
  • What resources can you dedicate to a recovery team?
  • What technology (both off-site and on-site) will be affected?
  • What data storage and protection methods do you have in place?
  • Do you have a disaster-recovery-as-a-service (DRaaS) plan in place?
  • Do you have support from key stakeholders in the enterprise?
  • Does the DRP align with overall organizational mitigation goals?
  • What compliance requirements relate to your DRP, if any?
  • Do you have an information system contingency plan in place for your critical infrastructure?

You can learn more about how to make business continuity and disaster recovery plans with the attached resource. We will also include a DRP template at the end of this post to support improved continuity of operations and risk mitigation.

What’s the difference between incident response, business continuity, and disaster recovery?

In the realm of organizational resilience and risk management, three critical concepts — incident response, business continuity, and disaster recovery — play pivotal roles. While they are interconnected and often overlap, each serves a distinct purpose in the strategy to maintain, restore, and protect business operations. Understanding their differences is key to developing a robust organizational framework that can withstand and respond to unexpected disruptions.

Incident Response

Definition and Focus: Incident response is the immediate reaction to an unexpected event or threat that could disrupt or harm the organization’s operations, assets, or individuals. The primary focus is on quickly identifying, managing, and mitigating the effects of the incident to prevent further damage.

Key Components:

  • Preparation: Developing an incident response plan, including defining roles and communication strategies.
  • Detection and Analysis: Identifying and assessing the nature and impact of the incident.
  • Containment, Eradication, and Recovery: Taking steps to contain the incident, eliminate the threat, and restore normal operations.
  • Post-Incident Review: Analyzing the response to improve future readiness.

Business Continuity

Definition and Focus: Business continuity is the strategic and tactical capability of the organization to plan for and respond to incidents and disruptions to maintain continuous business operations. It’s about ensuring that critical functions and services are available during and after an incident.

Key Components:

  • Business Impact Analysis (BIA): Identifying critical business functions, resources, and the potential impact of various disruptions.
  • Continuity Strategies: Developing strategies to maintain or quickly resume critical operations after an incident.
  • Plan Development and Implementation: Creating a comprehensive business continuity plan and ensuring it’s embedded within the organization.
  • Training and Testing: Regularly testing the plan and training employees to ensure preparedness.

Disaster Recovery

Definition and Focus: Disaster recovery is a subset of business continuity, focusing specifically on restoring IT infrastructure and operations after a catastrophic event. It’s concerned with the recovery of vital technology systems and data that are essential for the organization to function.

Key Components:

  • Technology Recovery Strategies: Identifying critical IT assets and services and establishing methods for recovery and redundancy.
  • Data Backup Solutions: Implementing data backup protocols to ensure that critical data can be restored after a disaster.
  • Recovery Site Arrangements: Setting up alternate processing sites to ensure IT systems can be quickly brought back online.
  • Testing and Plan Updates: Regularly testing the recovery procedures and updating the plan to reflect changes in technology and business processes.

Distinguishing Between the Three

While all three concepts are about preparing for and responding to adverse events, their scope and focus differ:

  • Incident Response is about immediate action to manage and contain the impact of an incident. It’s the frontline defense against threats and disruptions, often with a strong focus on security incidents like breaches or malware attacks.
  • Business Continuity takes a broader view, aiming to ensure that the organization can continue operating during a disruption and quickly return to normal afterward. It’s not just about reacting but about being proactive in maintaining essential functions regardless of the incident.
  • Disaster Recovery zeroes in on the IT infrastructure, ensuring that critical technology systems and data are recovered and restored. It’s a crucial part of business continuity specifically focused on the technological aspects.

Integrating Incident Response, Business Continuity, and Disaster Recovery

While distinct, these three elements should not operate in isolation. A well-rounded organizational resilience strategy integrates incident response, business continuity, and disaster recovery, ensuring that they align and support one another. For example, an effective incident response can minimize the impact of an incident, thereby reducing the burden on business continuity processes. Similarly, a robust business continuity plan includes disaster recovery strategies for IT systems. Together, they form a comprehensive approach to organizational resilience, safeguarding against a wide range of potential disruptions and ensuring the organization can withstand, respond, and recover from unexpected events.

Disaster Recovery Best Practices

Disaster recovery procedures vary from business to business, but they all meet certain best practices outlined below:

Make an inventory of your assets

You must know all your critical systems: the software, data, and hardware vital to your company. Examine your servers, data centers, on-premises and cloud-based virtual machines (VMs), and endpoint equipment such as desktop computers, laptops, or other equipment connected to the Internet. Examine networks, apps, and data repositories.

Pay specific attention to network and server configurations that must be reset after a disaster.

Assess Backup Procedures

Assure that each critical system has a functioning backup system, that the backups are made regularly, and that you test the procedures to restore critical systems from those backups. Determine the likelihood that some systems might not recover from backup, and devise suitable replacement options.

Determine Your Downtime Cost

Downtime disrupts production and results in revenue loss. It can also harm a company’s brand and lead to legal and regulatory issues. Understanding the financial effect of a potential failure helps you determine the value of preventive actions.

Reassess Your Policies and Procedures Often

No good contingency plan is static. If your business undergoes a significant change — to its operating structure, the IT applications you use, the data you collect, and so forth — revisit your plan and see whether it needs an update. If you need new policies or procedures to keep your plan current, implement those changes as necessary. Then do it all again every year or two, or whenever another big change comes along.

Compliance obligations and disaster recovery planning

Many laws and regulations require organizations to maintain effective disaster recovery and business continuity plans. Some are quite specific in what or how quickly you must be able to recover. For example:

  •   The Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) states that corporate officers of publicly traded companies are liable for business continuity and disaster recovery plans.
  •   The Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA) requires due diligence for the availability of data in electronic funds transfers, including at the point-of-sale, after a disaster.
  •   The Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires businesses that handle protected health information (PHI) to have a data backup plan, disaster recovery emergency plan, and emergency mode operations plans.
  •   The Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) requires federal government agencies and their contractors to assure that electronic data is available during a crisis.
  •   The NIST 800-53 standard for cybersecurity provides details on policy, procedures, plans, training, testing, and updating disaster recovery plans.

Key Components of Disaster Recovery Plan

A Disaster Recovery Plan (DRP) is an essential component of an organization’s broader business continuity strategy. It focuses specifically on restoring IT systems and operations after a catastrophic event. A well-crafted DRP is not just about technology; it’s about ensuring the organization can quickly bounce back from disruptions, minimizing downtime and loss. Here are the key components that should be included in an effective Disaster Recovery Plan:

1. Policy Statement and Plan Overview

  • Purpose and Scope: Define the purpose, scope, and objectives of the disaster recovery plan. Clarify what systems, processes, and functions it covers.
  • Policy Statement: Outline the policy and principles that guide the disaster recovery efforts, including commitment from management.

2. Roles and Responsibilities

  • Disaster Recovery Team: Identify the members of the disaster recovery team and outline their specific roles and responsibilities. This includes IT staff, management, and other key personnel.
  • Contact Information: Provide up-to-date contact information for all team members and external contacts (vendors, emergency services, etc.) crucial to the recovery process.

3. Risk Assessment and Business Impact Analysis (BIA)

  • Risk Assessment: Identify potential threats and vulnerabilities that could lead to disasters. Assess the likelihood and impact of these risks.
  • Business Impact Analysis: Determine the critical business functions and the impact of their disruption. Identify the maximum acceptable downtime for each function.

4. Recovery Strategies

  • Technology Recovery Strategies: Develop strategies for restoring IT systems, applications, and data. This might include off-site backups, cloud solutions, and redundancy measures.
  • Alternative Work Arrangements: Plan for alternative work arrangements if the primary workplace is unavailable. This could involve remote work setups or a secondary location.

5. Inventory of Assets and Services

  • Hardware and Software Inventory: Keep an up-to-date inventory of all hardware and software, including versions, configurations, and dependencies.
  • Critical Services and Vendors: List critical services and vendors, along with contact details and alternative options.

6. Data Backup and Restore Procedures

  • Backup Procedures: Detail the procedures for backing up data, including frequency, method, and storage locations.
  • Restore Procedures: Outline the steps to restore data from backups, ensuring quick recovery of critical systems.

7. Plan Testing, Training, and Maintenance

  • Testing Schedule: Establish a regular schedule for testing the disaster recovery plan to ensure its effectiveness and identify areas for improvement.
  • Training Program: Implement a training program for the disaster recovery team and staff, ensuring everyone knows their roles and responsibilities.
  • Maintenance Schedule: Set up a schedule for regularly reviewing and updating the disaster recovery plan to reflect changes in technology, business processes, and personnel.

8. Incident Response Integration

  • Integration with Incident Response Plan: Ensure that the disaster recovery plan is coordinated with the broader incident response plan, providing a seamless transition from initial response to recovery.

9. Emergency Communication Plan

  • Internal Communication: Plan how to communicate with employees during a disaster, including status updates and instructions.
  • External Communication: Determine how to communicate with external parties, such as customers, suppliers, and the media.

10. Documentation and Plan Accessibility

  • Accessible Documentation: Ensure that the disaster recovery plan is documented clearly and is accessible to all relevant parties, even during a disaster.
  • Secure Storage: Store copies of the plan in multiple, secure locations, both on-site and off-site.

A comprehensive Disaster Recovery Plan is crucial for any organization’s resilience and continuity strategy. By addressing these key components, organizations can ensure they are prepared to respond effectively to disasters and minimize the impact on operations, reputation, and finances. Regular testing, updates, and training are vital to ensure the plan remains effective and relevant in an ever-changing risk landscape. By investing time and resources into developing a robust DRP, organizations can navigate the challenges of unexpected disruptions and maintain their path toward growth and success.

Your Free Disaster Recovery Plan Template

To be confident that your systems and data are protected in the event of a disaster and that your business can restore functionality as quickly as possible, we recommend that you include the following sections while writing your recovery plan:

  • An inventory of your hardware and software
  • Your tolerance level for downtime and data loss
  • Who is on your recovery team, including their contact information
  • How your team will communicate during disaster recovery execution
  • The location of your recovery site
  • Specifications about disasters to include in your service level agreements with technology vendors you use
  • A routine testing schedule for your recovery plan

To help you get started, we’ve created a free disaster recovery template you can use to get started drafting yours.

Manage all your Risks with RiskOptics ZenGRC

As your company grows, your risk landscape increases dramatically, and managing all those risks can be increasingly challenging. ZenGRC from RiskOptics can help you manage your disaster recovery programs and audit your compliance with whatever regulatory demands might apply; it can also do the same for dozens of other programs and compliance standards.

ZenGRC compliance templates can aid you in simplifying self-assessments. Our simple, central dashboard gives a unified picture of all your compliance frameworks, indicating where cracks exist in your programs and how to solve them.

ZenGRC collects and organizes all associated documents, making it easy to get when the time comes for your audit.  A demo can give you a better understanding of how ZenGRC can help you attain “Zen mode” in your compliance efforts. Schedule a demo today to see how ZenGRC can streamline your third-party vendor risk management program.