Protecting business-critical data in a virtual world

Philip Bridge, President at Ontrack, talks to us about the unfortunate reality of rising cyberattacks causing data loss in virtual systems and the steps we can put in place to prevent our businesses becoming victims to these attacks.

An unfortunate reality


Data loss is fast becoming an unfortunate reality for anyone who manages virtual systems. The sad truth, according to Europol, is that the frequency of cyberattacks has never been higher. Unscrupulous criminals across Europe are abusing the unrest that has arisen over the coronavirus as an excuse to target their victims. In particular, there has been a significant rise in the number of phishing mails containing the words corona or COVID-19. One such example is a spoof email purporting to come from the National Institute for Public Health, that claims to contain important information about the virus. However, be warned. If you open the attachment, not only will your computer be infected with ransomware, but there is the potential that your backup system could also be erased.

Lately, we are seeing more and more data recovery cases emerging where backup applications have been erased by cyberattacks. These are often virtual machine (VMs) backup files. This is because organisations are increasingly running multiple VMs on one physical server, rather than using the separate servers of old. Moreover, modern hypervisors make the configuring and maintaining of physical servers far less complicated. Although sometimes the data from backup files and storage systems can be saved, it is often not clear how long the cybercriminal has had access to the system. As a result, organisations cannot rely on backups to restore their vital data. So, what can be done to circumvent the issue?

Common causes of data loss


Our own data shows that – in addition to ransomware – human error, hardware malfunction and RAID issues are the most common cause of data loss on VMs. Sad but true. Damage and data loss are often a result of simple human error. This could include patches with programming errors from under pressure developers, updates without an offline backup, poorly planned implementation of new company-wide software, accidentally overwriting or formatting a storage medium, damage to the core database of integration problems between disparate systems.

The hardware problems faced by virtual systems are almost the same as with physical systems. Think of faulty drives, faulty controllers, faulty server components and power problems. However, RAID damage is a much bigger challenge for VMs because of the very nature of virtualisation. RAID controllers are responsible for assigning all information to the many disks available. However, if a RAID configuration becomes corrupt, files cannot be simply rebuilt. Rather, when that happens, the interconnectedness of multiple systems may lead to significant data loss and long downtime.

Measures to take


With the consequences potentially causing serious data loss to business-critical data (and leading to the likely heavy fines from regulators) it is wise to take measures that can prevent such incidents. Firstly, it is important that organisations recognise that virtualisation and VMs are not flawless. The reality is that they can become defective just as quickly as other legacy storage options. Therefore, before creating a virtual environment for sensitive applications, think about which solution best fits the specific needs of your organisation.


Read More: 10 Tips to Working Remotely


Secondly, do not combine virtualisation solutions. Using multiple virtualisation solutions in the same environment can increase the risk of data loss exponentially. Adding too many layers of complexity can be very risky and makes the data recovery process time consuming for even a seasoned pro. Therefore, it is better to keep your virtualisation simple and stay with one solution within one environment.

Thirdly, always back up and take snapshots of your changes. No exceptions. Since advanced persistent threats (APTs) are showing up more and more, a good backup rotation scheme is vital. I would advise to make multiple backups. Then don’t forget to save them to another physical location (whether that be a local server, hard drive or tape) or in the Cloud. Always provide an airgap so that a hacker cannot access the network during backup. Also, think carefully about the right backup software for your virtual environment so that it can support you in your endevours. There are several backup software solutions on the market. Some can be used with both VMware and HyperV solutions. Probably the most important factor to consider when choosing your backup software is how much time it takes to recover VMs from the backup.

If, not when


Although virtualisation can undoubtably save time and eliminate complexity for users, VM files can still be lost or damaged. Data loss is a reality for anyone who manages virtual systems. It is, therefore, essential that the IT department is fully aware of the ins and outs of their systems and has a specific plan on how to respond to an incident. It should never be considered an if, but a when. In this way, they can consult a specialist within seconds who can perform adjustments or repairs at the file system level, so that the data that the business relies on can be quickly accessed again.


Philip Bridge

Philip Bridge, President of Ontrack. Ontrack understands data; it draws on its expert engineers and R&D facilities to solve customers data management challenges at different stages of the data lifecycle.

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