Business Continuity Strategies

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If you’re planning to take the SY0-501 exam, you should understand business continuity strategies. This includes disaster recovery and continuity of operation concepts. Combined, these help ensure mission-critical functions continue to operate even if a disaster destroys a primary business location.

For example, can you answer this practice test question?

Q. A security expert at your organization is leading an on-site meeting with key disaster recovery personnel. The purpose of the meeting is to perform a test. Which of the following BEST describes this test?

A. Functional exercise

B. Full-blown test

C. Tabletop exercise

D. Simulation to perform steps of a plan

More, do you know why the correct answer is correct and the incorrect answers are incorrect? The answer and explanation are available at the end of this post.

Disaster Recovery

Disaster recovery is a part of an overall business continuity plan. Often, the organization will use the business impact analysis to identify the critical systems and components and then develop disaster recovery strategies and disaster recovery plans (DRPs) to address the systems hosting these functions.

In some cases, an organization will have multiple DRPs within a BCP, and in other cases, the organization will have a single DRP. For example, it’s possible to have individual DRPs that identify the steps to recover individual critical servers and other DRPs that detail the recovery steps after different types of disasters such as hurricanes or tornadoes. A smaller organization might have a single DRP that simply identifies all the steps used to respond to any disruption.

A DRP or a BCP will include a hierarchical list of critical systems. This list identifies what systems to restore after a disaster and in what order. For example, should a server hosting an online web site be restored first, or a server hosting an internal application? The answer is dependent on how the organization values and uses these servers. In some cases, systems have interdependencies requiring systems to be restored in a certain order.

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If the DRP doesn’t prioritize the systems, individuals restoring the systems will use their own judgment, which might not meet the overall needs of the organization. For example, Nicky New Guy might not realize that a web server is generating $5,000 an hour in revenue but does know that he’s responsible for keeping a generic file server operational. Without an ordered list of critical systems, he might spend his time restoring the file server and not the web server.

This hierarchical list is valuable when using alternate sites such as warm or cold sites, too. When the organization needs to move operations to an alternate site, the organization will want the most important systems and functions restored first.

Similarly, the DRP often prioritizes the services to restore after an outage. As a rule, critical business functions and security services are restored first. Support services are restored last.

Business Continuity Strategies

Testing Plans with Exercises

Business continuity plans and disaster recovery plans include testing. Testing validates that the plan works as desired and will often include testing redundancies and backups. There are several different types of testing used with BCPs and DRPs.

NIST SP 800-34, “Guide to Test, Training, and Exercise Programs for IT Plans and Capabilities,” provides detailed guidance on testing BCP and DRP plans. SP 800-34 identifies two primary types of exercises: tabletop exercises and functional exercises.

A tabletop exercise (also called a desktop exercise or a structured walk-through) is discussion-based. A coordinator gathers participants in a classroom or conference room, and leads them through one or more scenarios. As the coordinator introduces each stage of an incident, the participants identify what they’ll do based on the plan. This generates discussion about team members’ roles and responsibilities and the decision-making process during an incident. Ideally, this validates that the plan is valid. However, it sometimes reveals flaws. The BCP coordinator ensures the plans are rewritten if necessary.

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Functional exercises provide personnel with an opportunity to test the plans in a simulated operational environment. There is a wide range of functional exercises, from simple simulations to full-blown tests. In a simulation, the participants go through the steps in a controlled manner without affecting the actual system. For example, a simulation can start by indicating that a server failed. Participants then follow the steps to rebuild the server on a test system. A full- blown test goes through all the steps of the plan. In addition to verifying that the test works, this also shows the amount of time it will take to execute the plan.

Some of the common elements of testing include:

  • Backups. Backups are tested by restoring the data from the backup.
  • Server restoration. A simple disaster recovery exercise rebuilds a server. Participants follow the steps to rebuild a server using a test system without touching the live system.
  • Server redundancy. If a server is within a failover cluster, you can test the cluster by taking a primary node offline. Another node within the cluster should automatically assume the role of this offline node.
  •  Alternate sites. You can test an alternate site (hot, cold, or warm) by moving some of the functionality to the alternate site and ensuring the alternate site works as desired. It’s also possible to test individual elements of an alternate site, such as Internet connectivity, or the ability to obtain and restore backup media.

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Q. A security expert at your organization is leading an on-site meeting with key disaster recovery personnel. The purpose of the meeting is to perform a test. Which of the following BEST describes this test?

A. Functional exercise

B. Full-blown test

C. Tabletop exercise

D. Simulation to perform steps of a plan

Answer is C. A tabletop exercise is discussion-based and is typically performed in a classroom or conference room setting. Because this is a meeting that includes disaster recovery personnel, it is a tabletop exercise.

Functional exercises are hands-on exercises and include simulations and full-blown tests.

See Chapter 9 of the CompTIA Security+: Get Certified Get Ahead: SY0-501 Study Guide for more information on implementing controls to protect assets.

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