What is RPO and RTO in Disaster Recovery?

Today’s businesses exist in a digital environment with high customer expectations, and unplanned downtime is among the most costly events for any organization. Any service-level gaps and delays caused by downtime can result in losses that cut across productivity, sales, and customer satisfaction. A study by Uptime Institute reveals that over 60 percent of downtime leads to losses of over 100,000 U.S. dollars. This trend needs to be arrested, and IT managers or those responsible for networks have their work cut out.  

Disaster Recovery (DR) is where the work starts, and there are certain key elements that play a significant role here. This article will discuss the two main components of a disaster recovery plan, the RPO and RTO. 

What is RPO?

RPO, or Recovery Point Objective, represents the maximum amount of data that can be lost during a disaster before the organization suffers significant business impact. The RPO is typically measured in time, such as hours or days. For example, an organization might have an RPO of 12 hours, which means that it can tolerate up to 12 hours of data loss without significant damage to its operations. The RPO is a key factor in determining the size and scope of a disaster recovery plan. Organizations with higher RPOs will need to invest more in their recovery infrastructure. In contrast, organizations with lower RPOs can get by with cheaper and simpler backup solutions.

What is RTO?

RTO, or Recovery Time Objective, is the amount of time that a business can be without access to data or systems before it starts to experience significant financial or operational consequences. It sets the maximum time it should take to restore operations after an outage and basically implies the maximum downtime a company can tolerate. In other words, it's the maximum amount of time that a company can tolerate having its systems down in the event of a disaster. Like RPO, the RTO is a key element of any disaster recovery plan and should be carefully tailored to the specific needs of the business. A company's RTO will be affected by factors such as the type of data being recovered, the number of users that need access to the data, and the nature of the business itself. It's important to remember that the RTO is not a static number — it may need to be revised as the business grows or changes. 

A few minutes of disruption can adversely affect a business and result in lost income in a high-frequency transaction environment. However, some business operations, such as a human resources system, can be down for a long time without resulting in consequential losses.    

The main differences between RTO and RPO

Here is a summary of the key differences between RTO and RPO

ItemRTORPO

Focus

RTO focuses on time

RPO focuses on data

Cost

Setting up an RTO can be expensive as.

RPO can be inexpensively implemented.

Processes

RTO defines how quickly business processes must be resumed after a disaster

RPO defines how much data loss is acceptable.

Implementation

Implementing an effective RTO plan is generally complex

Implementing an RPO is generally more straightforward

Building RPO and RTO into disaster recovery

RPO and RTO are essential components of a DR plan because they help the company get back to business in a timely manner. Organizations set different RPOs and RTOs for the various applications and systems that they use. The RTO and RPO for basic operations and applications should be lower, while less critical functions and applications have higher tolerance levels.  

Ideally, you want both your RPO and RTO to be as low as possible. But that's not always possible.

Here are examples of systems that should have lower RPO and RTO as well as those that can afford to have high RPO and RTO. 

Systems that should have low RPO and RTOSystems that can have high RPO and RTO

Critical financial systems

Inventory management systems

CRMs

Non-commercial websites

Sales portals

Internal communication systems

Air traffic control

Accounting systems

Stock trading

Historical records

RPO and RTO will determine how seriously an outage will impact business operations. The type of disaster may also affect RTO and RPO. Here are potential scenarios where both RTO and RPO will come in handy:

  • Data loss: Data loss may be as severe as a ransomware attack, an infected database, or as simple as a deleted folder.  
  • Application loss: A system update, security change, or configuration may cause an outage of services.
  • System loss: This may result from hardware failure or an operating system crash.
  • Business infrastructure loss: Disasters such as a fire, earthquake, floods, or electrical outage may affect a business facility and necessitate a disaster recovery to an alternative location. 
  • Operations loss: This worst-case scenario involves the complete disruption of all business operations. 

How to calculate the RTO and RPO

To calculate the right RTO and RPO for your business, you need to first create a business impact analysis. This analysis will identify the critical systems and applications that drive business operations and generate the most revenue. These applications and systems should be  tiered depending on their criticality in processes and income. The most critical systems and apps are allocated the highest priority and therefore their RPOs and RTOs should be the least. This ensures that a company can restore critical operations ASAP. 

Start by understanding the real cost of downtime for your company, then build a full register of all the applications and systems that your company uses. Break down the cost of downtime for each application/system.  Next, group these systems and applications into levels of priority based on the downtime costs. The highest level of priority represents those systems that bear the greatest cost of downtime while the lowest level of priority represents those systems that bear the most minimal costs.  Here is an example:

  • Level 1: Extremely critical
  • Level 2: Moderately critical
  • Level 3: Minimally critical

You can then assign the corresponding amount of time (for RTO) and data (for RPO) to each level above.  

This is a tedious exercise that would probably consume a lot of time and might require professional help from experienced data recovery experts. Please consider engaging a provider with good experience in Disaster Recovery Planning. 

Balancing cost and and priorities

Achieving stringent RPOs and RTOs is expensive, and so it’s important that the data recovery plan is designed in a way that also balances cost and criticality. For instance, an organization that runs a full backup daily for lower RPO will consume more network and storage resources than one that runs a full backup weekly.  This means that maintaining lower RPOs and RTOs is indeed costly.  The DR plan must set the desired RPOs and RTOs based on the criticality of applications and systems. This allows organizations to develop an efficient and cost-effective data recovery strategy.  

One of the key aspects when calculating the right RPOs and RTOs is to determine how often critical data should be backed up. Continuous data protection (CDP), real-time or continuous backup is an ideal option for critical data. Such a system creates an automatic backup by saving every change a user saves on the data. It also allows system administrators to restore data at any point, thus lowering RPO. However, continuous data replication requires powerful storage systems and network bandwidth and thus can be costly. The best option is to conduct incremental backups after the initial full backup. Incremental backup stores only modified and new data and thus help cut storage costs. 

Further reading: popular backup types

Best practices for effective RPO and RTO in disaster recovery

  • Establish clear objectives and KPIs: Before anything else, it is important to first establish what you want to achieve with your RTO and RPO. Do you want to improve customer satisfaction? Increase sales? Reduce costs? Once you have clear objectives, you can then establish the KPIs that will help you measure progress.
  • Improve backup frequency: The more often you backup your data, the less chance of something happening that will cause you to lose that data. You don't have to back up your entire system every day. In fact, that's probably not feasible. But you can back up critical files on a daily basis.
  • Move to cloud technology: Cloud technology can help speed up your disaster recovery process. 
  • Synchronous mirroring: This means having duplicate copies of your data that are constantly updated in real time. That way, if there's a disaster, you can quickly switch over to the mirrored site and keep critical operations running.
  • Review and update regularly: It is important to review your RTO and RPO on a regular basis and update them as needed. As your business grows and changes, so too will the risks it faces. By regularly reviewing and updating your RTO and RPO, you can ensure that they remain effective at all times. 

Conclusion

Given the importance of having a reliable disaster recovery plan in place, it's advisable to use cyber security companies to help with the implementation and maintenance of your organization’s RTO and RPO strategies as part of the disaster recovery objectives. These professional service providers  can be a valuable asset in this regard, as they specialize in helping businesses implement robust disaster recovery plans. No matter the size of your business or the scope of your internal IT operations, an experienced cyber security company can work with your IT team to develop a custom plan that is perfectly tailored for your business.

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