As computers have grown increasingly sophisticated, businesses are now able to store and retain more digital data than ever before. But with those technological gains come many new risks, including data loss. Days, months, or even years of carefully-constructed databases can be wiped out in an instant, leaving IT departments and C-suite executives alike scrambling to stay in compliance — or even in operation. While the immediate effects of data loss are typically quite obvious, the long-term consequences are often far-reaching.
What Causes Data Loss?
You’re likely aware of the many factors that can contribute to data loss, including:
- Equipment or systems failures
- Power overloads or outages (both, at the office and server/host level)
- Network disruption including brownouts, blackouts, and popping a core switch
- Damaging natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, fires, or earthquakes
- Corporate espionage or hackers (who may also steal sensitive data)
- Disgruntled employees sabotaging equipment or database logins
- Accidental deletion or damage of data
- Human error
- Failed network or application upgrades
- Cloud service disruption
- Kernel panics, bugs, and memory errors
The list is endless.
Of course, the loss incident is only the beginning. The ease of restoring data, particularly from offsite archives, will vary depending how backups are captured and stored, the malicious nature of the loss, and the totality of the loss.
The Ripple Effects of Data Loss
To say that data loss is an inconvenience would be a major understatement — it is much more than that. As more operational setups depend on files that represent clients and customers, a gap in data means a gap in ability. And data is an enormous liability — from simpler store-level complications, like an inability to retrieve loyalty program data, to serious legal issues such as GDPR violations (or HIPPA violations in healthcare-related fields).
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Most everyday data loss incidents are the result of hardware and software failures or human error. However, an increasing number of events and disruptions are caused by bad actors with malicious intent. Ransomware, malware, and spyware can all wreak havoc on your data integrity and carefully-constructed access policies.
Because sensitive data has a chain-of-custody existence, even a full data restoration will not offer a resolution once malicious actors get access. And these incidents are notoriously difficult to uncover: a 2018 study revealed that it took companies an average of 191 days to discover a data breach, adding time and complexity to your restoration efforts.
Regardless of the initial cause, your company must constantly be on the alert: bad actors can still gain access to your organization’s data when the downtime was caused by innocuous means. Hackers could simply take advantage of the situation by walking in the proverbial “unlocked door.” Protecting corporate systems during outages and other loss incidents requires hardened processes and constant vigilance.
Missing or corrupted data can bring overall productivity to a screeching halt, particularly as cloud workloads increasingly contain stateful data. Deadlines are missed, overhead increases with long-term recovery efforts, and internal stakeholders are forced to run on stale data.
Large enterprises with established IT functions have established RTO and RPO requirements in an effort to minimize this business impact. These benchmarks outline the acceptable amount of data and time that your business can lose in the event of a disaster.
- RPO: how much data your business can afford to lose, measured in time (e.g., one hour worth of data)
- RTO: how much time the organization can afford to lose after a disaster strikes until it is back in business
Defining RTO and RPO help to strike a balance between disaster preparation and cost efficiency, while promising critical data availability that’s needed to run the business. Data loss may occur even when the infrastructure is uninterrupted, and preparedness is yet another tool at our disposal to limit and mitigate the potential negative impacts of unexpected data loss.
Of course, even with these guidelines in place, companies should consider the risk of faulty backups. Companies should regularly test their backups to ensure that they are recoverable when needed. Even misconfigurations and lapsed licensing can jeoopardize efforts to return to full production.
The Disappointing Reality
Data loss isn’t just a potential threat — it’s a reality that businesses must be prepared to combat. That means decision-makers need to establish and agree upon an action plan to implement in the unfortunate event of data loss. This also means that secure backups need to be proactively and frequently created. Backups of data should be in cold storage, reducing the chances that they, too, will be damaged or stolen.