Though the bird flu could flatten companies, few have technology workarounds.
Vericenter chief technology officer Dave Colesante is a rare bird. Unlike many IT executives, Colesante has actually thought about a potential avian influenza virus, or bird flu, pandemic and reckons his company, which provides technology services, is relatively prepared if the virus becomes transmitted through human contact. After all, Colesantes 225-person support staff is used to managing VeriCenters seven data centers from home.
And thats a good thing if a bird flu pandemic hits, since the federal government would encourage "social distancing" to prevent further illness. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, a severe bird flu pandemic would make 30 percent of the population, or 90 million people, ill and result in 2 million deaths. Companies would have absentee rates of about 40 percent.
"You would have to set up to remotely manage IT," said Colesante in Houston. "Youd have to leverage connectivity."
The big question: How many companies are prepared for a bird flu pandemic? An AMR Research study released May 2 found that 68 percent of companies with more than $1 billion in revenue arent ready for a pandemic.
An earlier study by Deloitte & Touche concluded that two-thirds of companies arent prepared for a pandemic. Among the issues: How do you manage a work force at home? What workers would be on-site in data centers to swap servers and manage power? Can companies rely on Internet access in employees homes?
Those questions are likely to pick up for technology workers and others involved with business continuity. Through April 27, the World Health Organization tracked 205 cases of bird flu that led to 113 deaths. On April 28, a mild form of bird flu was found at a live-bird market in New Jersey.
Meanwhile, public awarenessnot to mention your bossscould be stoked by "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America," an ABC movie airing May 9.
"This is just now becoming a hot-button issue," said Henry Fieglein, chief innovation officer of thin-client company Wyse Technology, in Austin, Texas.
Fieglein, who was the global director of infrastructure and security architecture at Deutsche Bank, led a task force to prepare the bank for a pandemic.
According to Fieglein, the bank is exploring thin-client technology that would extend into workers homes to securely re-create on-site technology such as telephony and trading applications.
Deutsche Bank said in a statement that its business continuity plan can "cover a wide range of contingencies, including pandemics," but officials declined further comment.
While preparations are fluid, there is one bright side: We have time.
"An avian flu pandemic is not coming tomorrow, and the disease is probably a ways off," said Alex Tabb, principal at The Tabb Group, a New York-based consultancy to financial services companies. "But that doesnt mean you dont plan now."
M. Lewis Temares, CIO and dean of the engineering school at the University of Miami, said it cant hurt to bring bird flu preparations to the forefront.
"Companies arent paying attention to this at all," said Temares. "Its like Y2Kno one worried about it until right before Y2K. Most dont have a plan."
Companies remain mum about bird flu preparations, but they note the risks. For the fiscal year ended April 24, bird flu was mentioned in annual and quarterly reports 388 times, according to regulatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Tabb said the biggest reason companies are quiet about their planning is that they are just getting started. In addition, its hard to generate a return for something that may never happen. Given the uncertainty, Tabb said executives need technologies that will deliver a return even if a pandemic doesnt occur.
"The main thing to determine is what you have lying around today that can be reused in the case of a pandemic," said Tabb. "Being pragmatic is important if you are going to have your staff working from home."
The lack of a short-term return on bird flu planning means many companies are viewing a pandemic scenario as an extension to current business continuity plans.
"We have our hurricane playbook as far as contingency planning goes, and wed probably amend that for bird flu," said George Chizmar, vice president of IT at Apple Vacations, in Newtown Square, Pa.
Colesante said VeriCenters plan is to make sure its most valuable technology tools are ready in case the bird flu breaks out.
Fieglein advised that companies schedule work-at-home days to test infrastructure.
Among the technology tools that will be necessary in a pandemic:
VPN: "The VPN is the most important technology to create a redundant tunnel so workers can tunnel from various locations securely," said Colesante. The challenge: It has to be tested so it can handle a crush of at-home workers, he said.
Desktop support: Some workers will use their home PCs. Companies will need to keep desktop applications standardized and maintain security. The challenge: Security could be an issue. "Its easy to say employees will work from their house, but less secure if they dont have the same level of software protection they have at work," Colesante said.
Identity management: Steve Ross, global leader of Deloittes business continuity management practice, said a pandemic would force companies to cross-train workers on technologies. Perhaps an auditor has to fill in to manage a database. The challenge: A company will need technologies to track and provision worker roles and access permissions quickly, most likely from afar.
Citrix Systems MetaFrame: One way around standardizing applications would be to allow workers to tunnel into applications through software from Citrix, Tabb said. The challenge: Bandwidth constraints could hamper performance.
Thin clients : Fieglein said Wyse has discussed streaming software that would deliver applications remotely to PCs. Deutsche Bank is already a Wyse hardware customer. The challenge: Companies would need to build the centralized architecture to support thin-client use in the home.
Ross said those technologies go only so far because some productivity will be lost. "People are used to working together, and if you separate them, it may not go as well," he said. "Teleworking is a major issue, and there are problems with social distance."
Of course, all this planning isnt going to help companies if so-called last-mile access to workers homes falters.
Tabb said companies with workers at home will rely on cable and DSL providers for connectivity. "If a massive number of people have to work from home, that last mile is going to get clogged quickly," Tabb said. "There will be congestion if industry has to move significant data back and forth."
VeriCenters Colesante said his workers also have wireless cards that connect to cellular networks to use in case of DSL or cable outages.
The rub with all that telecommuting: Someone has to pick up the tab. "You need a continuity policy that dictates how a company approaches broadband," Tabb said. "Should the company reimburse broadband for those that arent connected?"
Add that to the long list of bird flu planning yet to be done.
"No one wants to tempt fate and say we have all of this covered," said Ross in New York. "Especially when they havent really started to consider the implications."