The ability of an organization – business, government, not-for-profit – to respond quickly to events that can rapidly spiral into critical business issues can be the difference between keeping a company’s doors open and shutting them up – perhaps permanently.
When a disaster strikes, be it the collapse of some or all of the electricity grid or the emergence of an exotic bug like SARS, a company that can quickly respond to events that none of us can fully anticipate can make all the difference between a business ‘disaster’ with long-term, lasting consequences and a short-term glitch that affects a company’s bottom-line, but doesn’t necessarily erase it. Securing and setting up computer hardware and software networks to replace existing networks that become unavailable in the event disaster strikes is one, if not the key issue.
A summary report on the current state of “disaster preparedness” recently released by Forrester Research (www.forrester.com) in collaboration with the Disaster Recovery Journal (www.drj.com), underscores how unprepared most companies are for the inevitable (albeit unpredictable) man-made or natural disaster that will disrupt their business and potentially cripple it – perhaps permanently.
Amongst an admittedly non-random sample of business executives – respondents to the Forrester/DRJ survey were “decision-makers or influencers in regards to planning and purchasing technology and services related to disaster recovery”, who actively read and participate in business continuity and disaster preparedness forums (in other words, informed industry insiders) – the Forrester/DRJ shows that overall spending on disaster recovery preparedness is low. Moreover, even for the companies these industry insiders represent – companies that typically have emergency backup plans – survey data indicates that only 1/3 of these informed companies regularly test their emergency plans. Industry best-practice recommends at least two full tests a year.
The author once worked as a lawyer providing employment and labor management advice to corporate clients, both large and small. Two scenarios I witnessed come to mind. The first is when I was a young articling student in my firm’s labor department. A senior lawyer stuck his head into my office late on a Tuesday afternoon and in a fairly stressed voice told me to quickly pull up anything that the local Occupational Health and Safety Regulations said about exposure to asbestos in the workplace. A contractor had been doing renovations at our client’s premises when a wall collapsed sending up a cloud of ‘friable asbestos fiber” – a term, I was to find out, that means asbestos dust – into the client’s offices. Our initial reaction had been correct according to the health and safety regulations. Get everyone out of there and secure the site. The client’s site was down for almost two weeks.
The second scenario was when businesses in the Toronto-area were shut down or curtailed operations dramatically for two weeks when the arrival of the SARS virus raised alarm bells with health authorities, hospitals and the media. Suddenly, I was our firm’s go-to-guy for employers, trolling the Chief Medical Officer of Health’s website, media resources, advisories and dishing out advice to clients on how to isolate and prevent the possible spread of an undetectable threat. We were all making it up as we went along . . . real seat-of-the-pants stuff . . . and the advice was predictably the same – “Don’t come to the main site if you can at all avoid it. Do business off-site.” Everyone was unprepared, then. Savvy management teams – government and commercial – have been playing catch-up ever since, preparing for when, not if, a similar yet unpredictable scenario dictates that it is not ‘business as usual’.
Forrester/DJ’s statistics, based on their survey respondents’ last five years of operations, indicate that “28% percent of companies are likely to ‘declare disaster and failover to their alternate site in a five-year time period.” This does not include scenarios where there are disruptions of operations at a company’s main site but not wholesale disasters where entire business operations have to be moved off-site to an alternate building or campus.
The key to a successful disaster recovery, or ‘DR’ strategy, therefore, is to be able to get people, hardware and data resources quickly and efficiently up and running at a separate geographic location. Forrester/DRJ notes that, “There is no ‘rule of thumb’ when it comes to the appropriate distance between your data center and your recovery site.” Spatial separation is good and necessary, but ensuring that the hardware and software components that your people require can be quickly and efficiently assembled and configured for employees and management to operate off-site can be a challenge.
The largest corporations have dedicated backup facilities, fully operational and partially staffed for the inevitable. They regularly rehearse their DR plan, although only a third of the survey respondents say this is done twice per year as recommended. And these are industry insiders whose focus is on the unforeseeable.
Smaller companies, and companies where the IT infrastructure that all companies have is not as business critical, tend to be the organizations without formal DR plans and rehearsals. But even these companies can efficiently plan for the unexpected. Working with an equipment rental dealer that specializes in business computer rentals – laptop rentals to replace workstations that are temporarily inaccessible, server rentals to which critical business data can quickly be transferred – as well as the peripherals, set up assistance and maintenance support for temporary worksites – is a great first step. It need not be expensive or time-consuming to stage a mock trial for getting rental laptops to employees and having your IT or management-team transfer critical business data to rental servers. Doing so periodically will highlight the glitches that are likely to occur in inevitable disastrous scenarios where everyone is flying by the seat of their pants to keep a business running in what may seem like untenable circumstances.
The Forester/DR numbers show that amongst the surveyed decision-makers or facilitators who have made it their business to think in terms of disaster recovery and business continuity in the face of the inevitable, only half of respondents expect that they will be able to get the backup hardware and software systems required for their “business-critical applications” up and running in the first 30 hours following a disaster that makes continued operations at their main site untenable. Another 34 percent anticipate it will take up to 80 hours post-disaster to get critical business applications up and running, and 15% of those surveyed figure that even with their degree of preparedness it will take in excess of 80 hours to boot up their business critical applications.
Break that 80 hours up into normal business days, and that is over two weeks’ time. Most businesses, large or small, cannot afford to be without their critical business applications and the hardware to run them for two weeks. Starting to formulate a plan for what your company would do in the face of disaster need not keep you up at night. Talking to an equipment rental dealer who specializes in business computer rentals, laptop rentals and server rentals and finding what equipment and technical support you can acquire when your business is in the teeth of a storm is a great first step in dealing with a disaster that will almost unavoidably land on your desk on a Tuesday afternoon when you least expect it to.