Learning From Disaster
Today, as anyone who's glanced at a newspaper knows, is the anniversary of one of the darker points in American history: The day Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. It's a good time to take a look at where businesses stand in terms of disaster preparedness. And, as you might expect, the news is both good and not-so-good.
Certainly awareness of the need for effective, realistic, and up-to-date plans for IT-systems recovery is at an all-time high in corporate America. According to the CIO Executive Council, 76 percent of its members now have formal disaster-recovery plans in place. (That number is much smaller for small businesses.) Unfortunately, action and dollars have not followed.
According to a Harris Interactive Inc. survey of 57 executives from companies with $500 million-plus in annual revenues, 63 percent gave their organizations a grade of C or lower on their ability "to protect the workforce and business" in case of a pandemic of avian flu. What's more, while disaster-preparedness goals have gotten more ambitious, the resources have actually decreased or stayed the same. 95 percent of the execs said that acceptable downtime in the event of a natural disaster or other catastrophe had dropped to under 11 hours, from 20 two years ago, while 58 percent said disaster-recovery budgets have remained flat or declined.
The primary requirement of front-liners dealing with disasters -- whether they're emergency medical teams or IT managers -- is reliable communications.
“Lack of timely information-sharing and inadequate communications capabilities likely contributed to the loss of emergency responders’ lives” on Sept. 11, 2001, wrote Dr. Shyam Sunder, deputy director of the Building and Fire Research Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the lead investigator during the building and fire safety investigation of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, in the New York Daily News last year.
Major events like earthquakes and hurricanes aside: What are the primary causes of unplanned IT downtime? "Hardware failure" and severed cables thanks to backhoes.
I'm sure you can see where this is headed. We've devoted a fair amount of coverage on Unstrung over the last year to wireless systems for redundancy and recovery in disaster situations, from SMS networks for first responders on the Gulf Coast to wireless LANs that were up and providing voice and data communications to shipyards within days of Katrina. (See Opportunity From Disaster and La. Parish Seeks SMS Relief.)
Any disaster expert will tell you that technology is no substitute for good planning. And any good plan for IT continuity and recovery in case of a disaster involves not only redundant, wireless networking and protected data storage, but also such basics as uninterruptible power supplies and failure-proof air conditioning systems. Identifying essential data, critical systems, and single points-of-failure -- i.e., the factors that can shut down your business and keep it down -- is the key first step.
But there's no question that as wireless networks go from secondary, "nice-to-have" modes of connectivity to primary lifelines for many businesses, the consequences of the next Katrina for IT professionals could go way down.
— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung