Understanding RTO Planning: A Comprehensive Guide to Recovery Time Objectives for MSPs in 2023

Due to cyberattacks like ransomware, natural disasters, and system outages, data loss is no longer a question of if it will happen, but when it does, will you be prepared? 96% of companies had at least one outage resulting in downtime in the last three years. Even more concerning, 1 in 5 organizations experienced a “serious” or “severe” outage in the previous 3 years resulting in significant financial loss, reputational damage, compliance breaches, and in severe cases, loss of life.

Practical Recovery Time Objective (RTO) planning is essential to the comprehensive business continuity and disaster recovery (BCDR) solutions MSPs use to protect clients. It helps minimize the impact of disruptions while restoring critical business functions to maintain operations. Unfortunately, 72% of organizations are not well-positioned for disaster recovery. Fortunately, MSPs can provide a complete BCDR solution that helps clients develop a robust disaster recovery plan with an effective RTO.

RTO Planning and Disaster Recovery

Defining Recovery Time Objective (RTO)

Recovery Time Objective (RTO) measures when a disruptive event occurs and when IT resources must be fully operational. It’s calculated using the per-hour downtime costs and any service level goals the company needs to meet. Essentially, it determines how long a company can afford a business interruption.

RTO varies based on backup and disaster recovery (BDR). For example, recovery takes much longer if you only back up file and folder data to conserve costs but forgo application and configuration backup. In that scenario, you must physically replace the servers and applications before restoring the file and folder data. A faster but more expensive solution is to create a backup image of all critical applications and their configurations. With comprehensive backup, RTO significantly decreases to get clients back to work faster.

Importance of RTO in Disaster Recovery

RTO has a central role in disaster recovery planning as it’s used to assess, prioritize, and establish the right strategies to recover all systems, processes, and applications after disruptions hit. Assigning an RTO to a system helps businesses identify which are most important for business continuity. Prioritizing essential systems ensures that business-critical operations are up and running first.

RTO is also influential in determining equitable resource allocation in disaster recovery planning. A shorter Recovery Time Objective requires higher investments in backup, redundancy, and recovery solutions, while a longer RTO is more cost-effective and less resource-intensive.

Lastly, RTOs is a factor when designing the disaster recovery strategy for each system and process that keeps a business moving. For example, high-availability solutions with real-time data replication and BDR automation typically deliver a short RTO, and traditional backup and disaster recovery result in a longer RTO.

Relationship between RTO and Recovery Point Objective (RPO)

While RTO and Recovery Point Objective (RPO) are both units of time that help underpin a data recovery program, the two figures are subtly different. As you just learned, RTO measures the time from when a disaster hits to when IT resources need to be fully operational again. It is the maximum amount of time that data might be lost and unrecoverable.

Operationally, RPO is how often you must back up a client’s data to recover from a potential disaster. You can have different RPOs for different data types, and backups can occur at different intervals based on RPO. For example, if you set the backup interval to one backup a day, you risk losing a whole day’s worth of data after a disaster. But if you back up every 15 minutes, you only risk losing 15 minutes’ worth of data. At the same time, the more you back up, the more storage space you need. Your BCDR solution may include worry-free storage, or you might have to navigate tiered storage without pooling. The latter frustrates MSPs and clients who struggle to scale cost-effectively, navigating size limits and surprise storage overages.

Read more: RTO vs RPO: Two key components of BCDR success

The most significant difference between RTO and RPO is that RPO looks to past events, whereas RTO is a future-facing figure that sets a timeline for recovery operations. In both cases, the costs of maintaining business continuity decrease as the time frames lengthen – however, the potential negative fallout for the business increases. Think of RTO and RPO on a spectrum with costs and levels of protection on a sliding scale that are working against each other. The goal is to identify where clients are on that spectrum to determine if the existing position protects the business or leaves it vulnerable.

Key Factors in RTO Planning

A company’s business continuity plan or business impact analysis (BIA) dictates RTO planning. These multi-step processes start by addressing the following factors so that when you develop your RTO plan, it streamlines disaster recovery planning.

Identify Critical Business Functions

MSPs can’t protect what they don’t know exists, so identifying critical business functions is the first step in RTO planning. Clients need to create an inventory of everything – whether it’s required for business or not: systems, applications, workstations, laptops, servers, and so on. Then, they prioritize the inventory based on what’s required when – starting with an immediate response to “stop the bleeding” and ending with 100% of business functions restored.

Using this information, MSPs can act quickly and deliberately during recovery to minimize the consequences and costs of downtime and business disruptions. Understanding the extent of downtime helps optimize disaster recovery planning. New replacement devices, non-compliance fines, legal fees, reputational damage, lost revenue, and employee productivity are all potential costs associated with downtime.

To help clients avoid these, MSPs can implement targeted risk mitigation strategies like runbooks. Creating runbooks within your BCDR solution lets you configure an automatic deployment plan for virtualized devices. Runbooks are specific to each virtual environment with settings to identify which devices to virtualize and in what order, what resources are allocated to each device, and how long to wait between device deployments.

With the efficiency of runbooks, MSPs can push a button to initiate disaster recovery. Other best practices include establishing recovery procedures for each function, implementing fault-tolerant systems or redundancies, and regularly testing and updating disaster recovery plans to ensure effectiveness.

Assess Risks and Potential Disasters

Now that you know how to prioritize disaster recovery, you need to think about what the disaster might look like. Cybersecurity risks change as businesses expand their reliance on dispersed data and bad actors develop new attack strategies to encrypt, steal, or hold it for ransom. The risk of natural disasters depends heavily on the location of the business, but all companies are susceptible to power outages, storms, appliance failures, and human error.

Assessing the likelihood and impact of these threat vectors helps MSPs deliver an RTO that reflects the criticality and vulnerability of business functions. This information also enables MSPs to implement targeted risk mitigation strategies, including redundancy, fault-tolerant systems, automated backup and recovery solutions, and contingency plans tailored to specific threats. It’s also essential for establishing an effective incident response plan that answers the question, “What now?” after disasters strike. Based on the RTO of critical business functions, companies can quickly move through their disaster recovery procedures.

Additionally, updates are critical to the effectiveness of disaster recovery planning. For example, many SMBs failed to understand a pandemic’s short- and long-term impact. As a result, many MSPs scrambled to reassess and update their protocols to account for future pandemics. Reassessing risks and potential disasters should be part of regularly scheduled disaster recovery updates to protect against and plan for the data loss incidents most likely to occur.

Understand Dependencies and Resource Requirements

Recovery Time Objective planning also requires MSPs to understand dependencies like interrelated systems, processes, applications, and third-party vendors. They also need to know what resources are required and available for hardware, software, labor, and budget.

By identifying dependencies, MSPs can create a more comprehensive disaster recovery plan that accounts for the interrelated nature of the company’s processes, applications, and systems. Considering all critical components and disaster recovery efforts, you can appropriately address the full scope of potential disruptions and sequence disaster recovery efforts. For instance, if a particular application relies on a specific database, restoring the database first is vital so that application recovery goes smoothly. Sequencing minimizes downtime and creates efficient and effective recovery efforts.

Dependencies also include relationships with third-party vendors or service providers outside of MSPs. Understanding these dependencies enables companies to coordinate their disaster recovery efforts with external partners and account for potential disruptions in their supply chain or service providers.

Developing an Effective RTO Plan

With a prioritized list of critical business functions, potential risks and disasters, and business dependencies and resource requirements, MSPs can move forward with their RTO plan.

Establish Realistic RTOs

The realisticness of your RTO is central to implementing an adequate disaster recovery plan, ensuring compliance with regulations, and balancing the costs of robust protections against the potential impact of an incident. If you’ve completed a BIA and the key factors listed above, you should be able to establish and fulfill a competitive, high-value RTO.

Using the ranked list of critical business functions, MSPs can prioritize the shortest RTOs for the most important systems and deprioritize longer RTOs for less essential operations. Next, evaluate the resources available to support your RTO. Are you capable of meeting the RTO target set? Or do you need to adjust it to set accurate expectations with clients?

Collaborating and communicating with internal and external stakeholders gets everyone on the same page for RTOs. The fewer questions and confusion during disaster recovery, the better, so document and reinforce disaster recovery and RTO planning for efficiency.

Implement Data Backup and Disaster Recovery Strategies

Your solutions must be able to deliver the RPO and RTO expected by clients. BCDR requires backing up data, replicating that data to the cloud, and restoring those backups when disaster strikes. Historically, backing up and replicating to the cloud has taken significant time. The reason is traditional chain-based backups, including traditional/forward and inverse/reverse chain directions. While they are still available, chain-based backups are widely considered legacy due to reseeding and storage requirements, backup failures, and compliance complexities.

Chain-Free backup technology, however, eliminates reseeding, storage overages, and backup burn. Instead, it delivers flat-fee pooled storage, custom and secure retention, and near-instant recovery. The time and labor savings alone make Chain-Free backup the right choice. And with accelerated recovery, you can also increase the competitiveness of RPO and RTO in service level agreements (SLAs). MSPs can use Axcient’s proprietary Chain-Free backups to ensure a 1-hour RTO and a 15-minute RPO.

Furthermore, MSPs can leverage innovations in automation for efficient and reliable BCDR. For example, anti-ransomware and data loss technology stop permanent data loss from malicious cyberattacks. Additionally, pairing an inexpensive local cache USB or NAS device decreases recovery and failback times. And self-managed disaster recovery via virtualization in the cloud lets you restore data immediately versus waiting on your vendor.

Regularly Test and Update

After implementing a disaster recovery plan, conduct regular tests to validate its effectiveness and identify potential issues or gaps. Tabletop exercises, partial recovery tests, or full-scale simulations prepare MSPs to meet RTO expectations and create opportunities to improve disaster recovery planning.

Personnel also plays a crucial role in disaster recovery efforts. They support the execution of the plan during actual emergencies, so they must be well-trained and aware of their roles and responsibilities during these critical and often chaotic times.

RTO Planning in Practice: Case Studies

Here are some examples of RTO planning in action by MSPs, showcasing successful implementation and lessons learned across various industries:

MSPs Supporting Healthcare Providers. An MSP worked with a hospital network to develop a comprehensive RTO plan. The MSP analyzed the hospital’s critical IT systems, including its Electronic Health Records (EHRs) and medical imaging systems, and established RTOs based on the potential impact of downtime on patient care. The MSP implemented a combination of on-site and off-site backups and deployed redundant systems to ensure quick recovery. As a result, the hospital network recovered from an unexpected power outage and maintained continuity of care.

Lesson learned: Recovery time planning in healthcare should prioritize critical systems that directly impact patient care and safety.

MSPs Supporting the Retail Industry. An MSP assisted a large retail chain establish an RTO plan to protect its point-of-sale (POS) system and e-commerce platform. The MSP identified critical systems, assessed potential risks, and assigned RTOs to minimize revenue loss during outages. They implemented a cloud-based backup and recovery solution that restored systems quickly after a ransomware attack, minimizing downtime and financial impact.

Lesson learned: In the retail industry, RTO planning should focus on systems that directly impact revenue generation and customer experience.

MSPs Supporting Manufacturing. A manufacturing company partnered with an MSP to develop an RTO plan for their production systems and supply chain management. The MSP assessed the impact of disruptions on operations and established RTOs for all critical systems. They used a combination of on-prem and cloud-based backups and redundant systems for core functions. When the company experienced a hardware failure, it recovered quickly and maintained production with minimal downtime.

Lesson learned: RTO planning in manufacturing prioritizes production and supply chain operations, and often requires individual RTOs due to the complexity of the supply chain.

RTO Planning Best Practices

Collaborate and Communicate

RTO planning isn’t just for IT or MSPs. It requires cross-functional involvement to maximize effectiveness. Engage internal departments, critical stakeholders, and third-party partners in the RTO planning process. Of course, this also includes your disaster recovery team, leaders from operations and finance, senior management, and your BCDR provider so that everyone understands the plan for disaster recovery.

Document and Keep Records

Documentation is critical for establishing and maintaining RTO regardless of who’s available during a disaster. Whether you call it a disaster recovery plan, incident response plan, or cybersecurity playbook, MSPs and their clients need a detailed, step-by-step guide for disaster recovery. It should include the RTO for each business function, priorities and timeframes for restoring systems and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for recovery within specified RTOs.

Additionally, clearly define the responsibilities of individuals and teams involved in disaster recovery efforts, and maintain accurate records of RTO planning activities, including risk assessments, BIAs, and disaster recovery tests. Documentation is valuable for audits, compliance, and identifying areas for improvement.

Regularly Review and Improve

You will continually be enhancing and improving disaster recovery readiness and RTOs. Periodically review and update your RTO plan to ensure it remains adequate and relevant, considering changes in business infrastructure, processes, and applications. Also, test the RTO plan regularly to validate its effectiveness and mitigate potential gaps. Incorporate lessons learned during testing, after actual cyber incidents, and in response to current threat vectors and RTO planning best practices.

Wrapping Up

RTO planning is a crucial aspect of business continuity and disaster recovery. With RPO, MSPs can identify critical business functions, assess risks and potential disasters, and consider dependencies and resources to develop a robust plan that aligns with client objectives. Effective RTO planning involves communication, documentation, and ongoing improvements. Utilizing the steps and best practices outlined above, MSPs can protect clients’ data despite devastating events.

Get started with RTO planning using the Axcient RTO Calculator! Just enter your recovery data and see your RTO results in hours instantly. Also, check out our MSP-only BCDR solution, x360Recover, to discover how your MSP can deliver a competitive RTO that supports business growth and reliable disaster recovery.

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