End of World problems: disaster recovery / secure remote access for SMB?
December 19, 2013 12:46 PM   Subscribe

What are IT folks doing to ensure continuity for small business customers whose offices could be affected by natural disasters? Is XenDesktop a good idea, and if so, what configuration would seem to make the most sense? Other ideas also fervently solicited.

Hi everyone,

After Hurricane Sandy hit, one of my clients' New Jersey office was offline and inaccessible for quite some time. They asked for a solution that would help them keep their businesses going even in the event of serious infrastructural disruption, and as a result we migrated them to Box.net. They've got about 30 users in total, and so every user began syncing the 100GB or so of files they have access to between their local computers and the cloud.

This was a disaster. Box's current sync tool strained under the load and, because of its design, would get way behind on changes. We worked to mitigate problem after problem with Box and its tools, but eventually the client despaired and decided to throw in the towel. The one thing that really saved our bacon was Box's "Edit" tool which lets you essentially open and save documents directly to and from a browser. When it worked, this was a serviceable cloud "office" space, which was why Box had seemed to make sense in the first place. But in the meantime, Box had broken their physical office space.

So we bounced and went back to the local server. And now, after all this hassle, I still don't have another plan that I feel 100% confident about.

There's also a new twist. They've added the additional requirement that they would like not to share files directly with remote users' machines. This obviously would totally rule out Box to begin with -- and I told them "you know, screenshots" -- but it also rules out VPN access to shared drives, which was going to be the interim plan for remote access. But a VPN doesn't resolve the infrastructure problem, either.

So I've been looking at Citrix' offerings. I think our current server could probably support a normal remote access workload (a handful of users at most). But it wouldn't be able to handle all 30 users running Desktops and/or Apps and working on the shared docs in a secure environment. But I'm also having a terrible time figuring out what kind of hardware we *would* need in that instance.

It feels like the plan that's percolating is to get a few XenDesktop licenses, and have the local server available for remote sessions. That covers the remote access needs, and also keeps files in-house (except for screenshots, obviously.) But the disaster recovery component seems like it could be very expensive: for a whole new set of hardware and running colocation fees. I also don't know how mirroring Citrix VMs goes or how expensive that is.

So here's the first question: does Citrix XenDesktop or XenApp seem to make any sense for my users? If so, what kind of hardware would I need for 30 users of mainly Office apps to work in XenDesktop with 200GB of shared documents between them?

And the second question: What are other IT folks doing for their SMB clients who fear the physical integrity of their local offices, but want to keep using them except in times when they are disrupted?

Thanks for any advice anyone might be able to offer. Super super appreciated. <3
posted by Embryo to Technology (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have you considered Google Apps?
posted by nogero at 1:40 PM on December 19, 2013

Best answer: It sounds like you tried doing this "on the cheap" and it didn't work out very well. I'd suggest that you and your client take a couple of steps back and think through the business requirements before you dive into the technology again.

A disaster recovery plan is part of a larger business continuity plan. At the very least, you should at least have a SWAG of the causes of business disruption, their likelyhood, and how much downtime costs the business. Based on that, you can start playing with a rough budget to create and maintain (because if it is worth doing, it is worth maintaining) a disaster recovery solution.

Having that will help you weigh the costs/benefits of various approaches. Depending on how much money is at stake, trying to find the low cost option might be folly. On the other hand, it might be that just being able to get access to the last weeks worth of files via a web-browser might be good enough.

The thing is, I have no idea of whether XenDesktop or XenApp makes sense for you and your client, in large part because the way you asked this question makes me wonder if you or your client even has an idea of what is really called for.
posted by Good Brain at 3:18 PM on December 19, 2013

Response by poster: OK, thanks for the feedback, Good Brain. I should probably have provided more details. Box actually wasn't all that cheap, but FTR that option was not my design. I became involved in these discussions subsequent to having gone down that path (basically, I've had to clean up the mess.)

I can suggest that we go over the cost/benefit numbers again, but perhaps it can suffice to say for now that the customer more or less *must* stay functional anytime the markets are open. Being on the East Coast, there's quite a bit of concern right now regarding loss of power due to future storms and other natural disasters. While we have already got a functional and reliable recovery solution in place for any cases of equipment failure, the fact that they maintain an Active Directory, Windows Server-based network in each office with shared storage makes their offices themselves now feel a weak link.

So the needs are these, and they can be coupled or detached as seems appropriate:
* A remote workers' solution (for <5 users) that does not expose company files to a user's computer
* A "cloud workspace" or the like that can be switched to if physical offices become compromised.

And, it's important to them to keep the basic workflow they're currently using on the day-to-day for their on-site users, which is nearly all of them.

At this point, cost isn't really the concern -- finding a reliable solution that fits these needs is. I've been trying to find a two-birds-one-stone solution, in part out of a desire for simplicity and in part because the two needs are highly complementary (a "disaster" use case is more or less the same as a "remote user" use case, except in a disaster it applies to everyone instead of a handful of people). XenDesktop seems to be one way of creating a portable workspace that can run on a local server but then fail over to a hot backup (I think?), but as I've never configured it before I'm not sure how to calculate hardware needs vs. number of users. And generally I'd like to hear from anyone else who has had to deal with a similar set of needs.

And nogero: Google Apps is an interesting idea but I don't think the customer would be receptive to switching from their current apps. There's also some line-of-business software that runs on their server that we also need to maintain in a disaster scenario.
posted by Embryo at 3:41 PM on December 19, 2013

If they are an all-Windows shop, it seems that the Microsoft cloud offerings might be able to give them a lot of what they need with relatively little effort. I have never actually investigated the practicality of this option, but you might check it out.
posted by rockindata at 6:19 PM on December 19, 2013

You don't have to stop using apps to use what you need from Google Apps (or Microsoft's). For example you can set Google drive to handle your Word, Excel docs, etc. What's nice about google drive is control of sharing. You can try Google apps for free. Just set up accounts for some users.

You should also look at Amazon S3. You can have a backup Windows server on Amazon's cloud for running your critical apps.

When I read your post, the phrase "keep it simple" spins around my head. You should clearly define each one of your needs/goals first.
posted by nogero at 8:08 PM on December 19, 2013

« Older Help me make an awesome 90's alternative rock...   |   Why won't images print in my MS word document? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.