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25 February 2005

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Planning for an IT disaster

Airplanes falling from the sky
When you talk with people about IT disaster recovery, their first reaction is usually that it will not happen to them. This is quickly followed by the description of an airplane landing on their company premises.
Unfortunately, it does not only happen to others, it can happen to you. And there are many disasters, not just airplanes falling from the sky.

What is a disaster?
Disaster - 'Any event or developed situation which severely disrupts the anticipated day-to-day running of a business or institution.'
When we talk about disasters, many people will think of fire and flood, as well as crashing airplanes. But if we only think of these dramatic physical disasters we will miss the majority of incidents that account for the countless disasters that happen every day.
Any event can be a disaster, from the computer breaking down to a software virus, from a factory fire to an office flood, and so many more.
IT Disaster - 'An incident that severely disrupts the IT service.'
To provide the IT service requires much more than just your PC sitting on your desk. There is the local area network wiring and wide area network wiring along with the routers, bridges and hubs. There are the file servers and application servers, and the many pieces of software that run on them. There is the connection to other organisation such as the Internet Service Provider and BACS. Many companies view telephony as part of the IT service and include the PABX.
Any incident that affects any one of those components of the IT service may result in a disaster situation.

Why is it important?
IT is business critical. It is a business enabler, a profit enabler. A break in the IT service can, and does, result in the closure of the business. Permanently.
80% of businesses without effective contingency arrangements will cease trading within 18 months of a serious incident, many of them within the first 6 months.
Without the IT applications, you do not know who your customers are. You can not process orders. You can not schedule production, or know what raw materials to order. You can not organise deliveries. You can not issue invoices, and chase outstanding payments. You can not pay for supplies, or your staff.
Take away your IT, and you take away the ability to be able to do business.

Understanding the risks
What can go wrong that will affect the IT service? What controls can we put in place to prevent, contain and recover from an incident?
The Risk Assessment considers physical issues, such as the suitability of the location of the servers, building security and fire prevention. It considers logical issues, such as anti-virus measures. It also considers procedural issues, such as password management, back-up frequency and storage.
Where are you vulnerable? And what further measures can be introduced to reduce that vulnerability? Prevention is better than cure.

Counting the cost
What are the most important parts of the business? How are they affected if there is an interruption to the IT service? How long can you survive before you are significantly affected?
The Business Impact Analysis identifies the priority of IT systems by considering the impact on the business if they are unavailable. It further identifies the maximum time the business can operate without that service.
The financial impact can be significant, and can be immediate. Consider the situation where you can not take orders. You do not make deliveries or issue invoices. You have no income. How long could you survive?
But it is not just the immediate impact you have to consider. There are longer-term issues such as the loss of customers to your competitors, which will require an increased marketing spend to recover from. There are legal issues as well. You are required to pay taxes on time. How long will it be before your staff resign to go to work for your competitors? What will happen to your share price? Will you become vulnerable to a hostile takeover bid?
How quickly must you recover your IT services? In what order are those services required to be available?

What to do?
What can be done to help recover from an IT incident?
Many people feel they can go back to a manual system when there is a problem with the IT. Or they will use mobile phones if the telephones are not working. For all but a few small businesses this is simply not practical.
Recovery Strategies identify the approach to contain an incident when it does occur, and to recover from an incident within the required recovery timeframe.
Some of the possibilities are having suitable maintenance agreements on equipment to ensure it is repaired quickly, having UPSs in case of power cuts, having resilient equipment with twin power supplies and RAID discs. You will need to ensure you have adequate data and system backups, and that they are secured off-site. For incidents that affect the site you will need to consider an alternative location for your server room, and possibly alternative office space for staff. The communications between the sites needs to be arranged.
All these arrangements take time to put in place, and can not be done quickly, especially after the event. Plan now or pay the price later.

Making plans
Who does what, when, where and how?
A business does not run itself. And an effective response to an incident does not just happen. It requires planning.
Who will be notified? Where are the phone numbers? Who says what to the media? How do you handle salvage? Where is the back-up media? Which staff can rebuild a server? What is the telephone number for the equipment supplier? Who can authorise emergency purchases? And so the list goes on.
Plan when you are not under pressure. Keep it simple. Write it down.

Will it work?
If you have not tested your plan, then you do not have a plan. You simply have a report.
Testing your plans allows you to identify issues with it when you have time to correct them. It also provides an opportunity for training staff. A major incident will not mean business as usual. It will require staff to do different tasks, and to do familiar tasks in a different way.
A small investment in training and testing can make the difference between a mountain and a molehill when you have a disaster.

Painting the Forth Bridge
Disaster Recovery Planning is not a one-off exercise. It is a continuous process.
As your IT infrastructure changes and your use of IT changes, then so must your plans change to reflect this. Before any change is made to your IT the affect on your disaster recovery arrangements must be considered. And those arrangements must be changed in advance of the IT change, and not some months later. Disasters will not wait for you.

May 2001




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Article by: Dave BowraAbout the author: Dave Bowra MBCI M.INSTIS is the principal of business evailability, a disaster recovery and business continuity consultancy based in Peterborough. He is a member of the Business Continuity Institute and a member of the Institute of Information Security.
Business Evailability

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