By BJ Gardner and Dave Zeigenfuss, Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company
Insufficient disaster recovery (DR) planning is all too common. According to a recent report from IDC, almost half of all businesses likely couldn’t recover from a disaster, thanks to “inadequate DR planning and implementation.” That statistic doesn’t sit well with the actuaries at an insurance carrier.
As a property and casualty insurance company, Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company (PLM) understands the importance of providing specialized protections that meet the evolving, unique needs of the niche market we’ve been serving for 125 years: the wood products and building materials industries. PLM provides specialty coverages in all U.S. states for retail dealers, wholesalers, distributors, light manufacturing, and heavy wood manufacturing operations.
Loss Control Is Our Language
Just as we help policyholders, broker partners, and employees manage hazards and risks to ensure that their businesses flourish in the event of a disaster, we require customized solutions that protect and keep pace with our business needs. At the top of that list: a robust, affordable, and streamlined disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS) plan. Data loss isn’t an option.
Many successful businesses, across industries, need the right tools, processes, and confidence that their business operations will quickly resume after a disruption. Regardless of the company’s age or customer base, successful growth requires a well-defined, effective disaster recovery plan. In a worst-case scenario—be it a natural disaster or power outage—preparation is essential. The goal: ensure that a company’s technology needs will be met after a disaster, in order to protect itself and its customers. (Regulations often mandate it, too.) PLM’s experiences shed light on universal lessons that can help safeguard all that you’ve put into your own organization.
A Gradual, Valuable Move To The Cloud
To maintain business continuity while reducing its physical footprint and keeping IT operations lean, PLM’s IT infrastructure has evolved over the past decade. Our bare-metal servers gave way to virtualized on-premises workloads. We managed our backup and recovery from an on-prem data center in Philadelphia, while also collaborating with Faction, which hosted a private cloud environment in New Jersey, providing a DR site in Atlanta, and eventually providing managed services in a hybrid multi-cloud environment.
PLM has been able to manage the backup process, even with pared-down resources after losing some headcount. When looking for cost savings in 2018, PLM’s IT decision makers felt comfortable migrating our disaster recovery site to VMware Cloud on AWS. We relied on Faction’s Hybrid Disaster Recovery as a Service (HDRaaS) offering, which utilizes the VMware platform to provide the scale and flexibility of the public cloud to meet PLM’s backup and recovery needs. Workloads from two data centers are replicated to Faction’s cloud-based DR by way of site recovery manager (SRM) site pairs. Faction uses VMware Site Recovery Manager to orchestrate failover and system recovery operations—tasks such as defining the recovery plan, creating protection groups, and re-IPing machines.
Establishing this relationship for managed disaster recovery in the cloud paid off in multiple ways. First and foremost, PLM reduced the daily task load and responsibilities of managing an internal DR solution by shifting these services and responsibilities to Faction through the use of VMware Cloud on AWS. Next, we simplified how our small team manages our IT environment. The managed service removes maintenance burdens from the shoulders of our in-house staff; we no longer need to support an internal DR network infrastructure. PLM now has a single point of contact for PLM’s recovery cycle, a fully scripted plan, and well-defined recovery point objectives. We can now automate operations, perform tests with minimal disruption, and act quickly in the event of downtime. Finally, to top it all off, PLM’s costs fell by nearly 20 percent by moving to a managed disaster recovery solution.
Secure Your Future: Lessons For Other Teams
Many other businesses have needs similar to PLM’s. Our plan for managed disaster recovery in the cloud provided insights that can help other organizations looking to augment their backup and recovery solutions:
- Identify business-critical systems. Know what needs to be up and running in the event of a disaster. At PLM, it includes policy and claims applications, which are hosted in public clouds by the vendors; our document image system, which runs in Faction’s data center; and systems running on-premises in PLM’s data center (accounting applications, legacy systems, file servers, and the Office 365 suite).
- Define a stepwise plan for moving to the cloud. Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual transitioned from bare metal servers to virtualized on-premises workloads and then to managed services in a hybrid multi-cloud environment, using DRaaS. PLM found managed services met our changing needs each step of the way.
- Establish cost-effective scalability and flexibility. In the insurance business, extended downtime or data loss isn’t an option. Insurers need to provide reliable services, regardless of the circumstances. With our DR site on VMware Cloud on AWS, the PLM IT team no longer needs to handle time-consuming tasks, such as maintenance of physical hosts and manual backups. We now have near-limitless scalability, allowing PLM to handle growing workloads, including those that require extensive storage capacity, such as our document imaging system.
- Ensure that your DR plan works. Frequent disaster recovery testing is essential to ensure that your IT operations will be recovered in the event of an actual disaster. VMware Cloud on AWS through Faction provides PLM with two full tests each year, as well as the ability for PLM to do ad hoc testing as we deem necessary. Not only does testing ensure the reliability of the solution, but it also satisfies compliance objectives. The flexibility and ease of recovery through the SRM process allows PLM to run testing quarterly—with little to no overhead on our resources and without interfering with production systems and applications. The aggressiveness of quarterly testing is a game changer through VMware Cloud on AWS. From a resource and uptime standpoint, it’s just not feasible with traditional DR technologies and methods.
- Look ahead. PLM continues to evaluate and improve its disaster recovery plans. We’re launching DR testing for compliance and auditing purposes as we continue to move workloads to the cloud. Legacy systems will stay on-premises while we grow a distributed IT environment across multiple private and public clouds, keeping operations secure and available.
- Adapt. Business longevity relies on the willingness to try new approaches and to meet contemporary needs. In the field of insurance, we’re continually adapting to new risks and finding ways to meet the needs of those who rely on us.
Established And Evolving
Each day, insurers work to avoid loss and minimize the impact of a wide range of risks. We understand the importance of preparation and protection—not just for our clients, but for ourselves. Disaster recovery planning is an essential element of business continuity. Keeping pace with it, as business transitions to the cloud, isn’t optional.
About The Authors
BJ Gardner is the Lead Systems Architect at Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company, where he is responsible for the management of all server and networking infrastructure. Dave Zeigenfuss, Senior Systems Architect at Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company, is the senior network engineer, overseeing PLM’s entire infrastructure.