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July 3, 2024

The role of recovery time objectives (RTOs) in cybersecurity

In the ever-evolving landscape of cybersecurity threats, downtime can be devastating for businesses. Every minute a critical or important business service is offline translates to a loss in revenue, productivity, and customer trust. This is where recovery time objectives (RTO) come into play. RTOs define the acceptable window for restoring operations after a security incident, serving as a vital metric for building resilience and ensuring business continuity in the face of cyber attacks.

In this blog we will explore how RTO’s are used to manage risks and ensure swift recovery post-cyber attacks plus effective strategies to meet RTOs.

What is RTO in cybersecurity?

In cybersecurity, as well as in other IT disaster recovery situations, recovery time objective (RTO) is that maximum acceptable period a critical system or important business service can be down after a cyber attack such as ransomware. It's essentially a time target for getting things back up and running. Several factors influence an RTO in this context. The most critical systems, like those affecting financial transactions, will have much stricter RTOs than less time-sensitive ones. The type of data involved also plays a role - sensitive data like customer financial information requires a faster recovery than publicly available marketing materials. Finally, regulations such as DORA in the financial industry or HIPPA in healthcare may dictate specific downtime tolerances that influence RTO for those systems.

The importance of RTOs in cybersecurity

A well-defined RTO is a critical tool in recovering from cyber attacks. For example, ransomware thrives on disruption, aiming to lock down systems and data until a ransom is paid. By establishing and practicing for a clear target for application recovery time, including testing and preparing for future ransomware recovery,  organizations can significantly reduce the leverage attackers hold. A tight RTO forces attackers to consider the diminishing returns of their extortion attempt. If a company can restore systems within a short timeframe, the financial incentive for paying the ransom weakens.

A recent example highlighting the importance of RTO is the ransomware attack on CNA Financial Corporation in March 2023. While the exact details of CNA's RTO are not publicly known, their ability to restore critical systems within a relatively short time frame likely helped them mitigate the financial and reputational damage from the attack.

Setting and implementing RTOs in cybersecurity

Establishing and implementing RTOs in cybersecurity requires a multi-pronged approach. The first step involves a thorough Business Impact Analysis (BIA). This analysis identifies your organization's crown jewels – the critical systems and important business services that keep your business running. The BIA assesses the potential consequences of downtime for each system, allowing you to prioritize and assign appropriate RTOs.

Next, a comprehensive risk assessment is crucial. This assessment evaluates the likelihood and severity of potential cyber threats, including ransomware attacks. Understanding your threat landscape helps determine the level of investment required to achieve your desired RTOs. For instance, a system facing a high risk of frequent cyber attacks might necessitate a more aggressive RTO, requiring significant investment in robust backups and automated recovery processes. Industry benchmarks can also be valuable tools. Analyzing how similar organizations approach RTOs can help you set realistic and achievable targets for your own business.

Once RTOs are established, implementation requires a focus on preparedness and streamlined recovery procedures. Investing in regular backups and establishing a system of redundancy ensures you have clean, accessible data readily available for restoration. Developing a well-rehearsed disaster recovery plan with clear roles and tasks minimizes confusion and delays during an attack. Automating those key recovery tasks can significantly speed up system restoration, bringing you closer to achieving your RTO goals. Finally, regular employee training on cybersecurity best practices empowers your workforce to identify and potentially prevent cyber attacks, ultimately minimizing downtime and keeping your business operational.

Strategies for meeting RTOs in cybersecurity

Achieving and even improving upon your RTO targets requires a multi-faceted approach to cyber recovery. First, investing in controlled and isolated backups and data replication strategies ensures you have a clean, recent copy of your data readily available for a cyber recovery. Second, implementing automated cyber disaster recovery processes will significantly speed up system restoration by automating and orchestrating  tasks that would otherwise be performed manually. Regularly testing your recovery procedures validates their effectiveness and identifies areas for improvement. Furthermore, fostering a culture of cybersecurity awareness through employee training empowers your workforce to potentially prevent incidents and minimize downtime. 

By implementing these strategies, you can significantly increase your organization's resilience and ability to recover from cyber attacks within your designated RTO window.

The role of automated  runbooks: Meeting RTO targets in cybersecurity

In the high-pressure environment of a cyber attack, every second counts. Meeting recovery time objectives (RTOs) hinges on efficient and rapid response. This is where automated runbooks come into play. Automated runbooks are essentially detailed, step-by-step guides that codify the tasks and procedures for handling cybersecurity incidents, including specific actions for recovery tasks. By automating key elements within these runbooks, organizations can significantly improve their chances of meeting critical RTO targets.

Here's how automated runbooks empower organizations to achieve their RTOs:

  • Reduced Human Error: Automation eliminates the risk of human error during critical recovery tasks. Automated runbooks ensure consistent and precise execution of steps, minimizing delays and ensuring a smoother restoration process.
  • Faster Response Times: Automating repetitive tasks like system isolation, data recovery initiation, and security patching allows security teams to focus on higher-level decision-making and complex troubleshooting. This significantly reduces the time it takes to restore critical systems.
  • Improved Consistency: Automated runbooks guarantee that everyone involved in the incident response follows the same procedures. This consistency minimizes confusion and ensures a coordinated effort towards achieving the RTO.

In essence, automated runbooks act as a force multiplier for security teams. By streamlining the recovery process and minimizing human intervention, they empower organizations to achieve faster system restoration and minimize downtime, ultimately meeting those crucial RTO goals.

How Cutover can help

Make sure your enterprise can accurately track and measure recovery time actuals to validate your application RTOs with Cutover’s Collaborative Automation platform. 

Cutover's automated runbooks, built specifically for IT operations, offer a solution that seamlessly combines automation, orchestration, and human decision-making in the event of a cyber recovery. Our platform helps IT teams standardize processes, accelerate execution, increase efficiency, and reduce costly errors, ultimately driving operational excellence, reduced risk and cost savings. Cutover's automated runbooks provide visibility across the entire process while keeping people in the loop for critical decision-making. Many of the world's largest financial institutions, including 5 out of the 6 largest asset managers and 3 out of the top 5 US banks, use Cutover.

Book a demo and learn how Cutover can help you meet your RTOs at www.cutover.com

Walter Kenrich
Cyber recovery
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