A Business Plan to Survive The Big One

Since Seattle is paying an estimated $2 billion to recover from the earthquake that struck March 1, unaffected IT managers should heed the warning: Prepare for disaster or perish

Since Seattle is paying an estimated $2 billion to recover from the earthquake that struck March 1, unaffected IT managers should heed the warning: Prepare for disaster or perish. Let me start by saying that if a similar temblor had rocked our Foster City, Calif., lab, you can be sure that we would not have been at work the next day. The reason?

We have no disaster recovery plan.

Sure, our building, perhaps like yours, has a big backup diesel generator, fire extinguishers and first-aid kits. We even have clever "grab sheets" that show our emergency assembly areas in the parking lot. However, these disparate pieces dont constitute a disaster recovery plan. Rather, they are (much-appreciated) survival equipment.

A disaster recovery plan is an essential part of doing business. It is one of the fundamental responsibilities of IT managers to ensure that business will continue even if the physical premises are destroyed. Let the Seattle earthquake be the force behind a successful disaster recovery plan in your organization. Here are some tips:

First, disaster recovery is one of the few projects that should be sold to upper management with a marketing twist. Win CIOs to a "business-continuance" plan. The ability to conduct at least some business after a disaster means the money needed for a full recovery is on its way.

Second, build the business-continuance plan around technology upgrades. Slipping redundancy and failover capabilities into new equipment and software is far cheaper than retrofitting installed components. That said, retrofit critical systems such as databases, mail and DNS servers and any other business critical systems at once.

Third, determine the appropriate location for your business-continuance center. For example, if your location is subject to physical threats such as earthquakes, floods or hurricanes, dont put your backup command center in the headquarters building. Consider leasing space at a co-location provider that is in a different city—but not too far away! You will almost certainly have to travel to the location to work out any kinks in the cutover.

Fourth, determine the appropriate level of redundancy required to keep the organization going. Business-continuance expenses need to be balanced against the likelihood that the resources will not be used. Work with executive management to determine what volume of business and which business units have priority. For example, order processing and production probably come before travel and human resources.

Finally, make everyone in the organization aware of the business-continuance plan with occasional drills. It isnt enough for employees and executives to know there is a plan to keep the business afloat if they have no idea how they actually fit into the plan. And the worst time to train staff on emergency procedures is right after a disaster. Remember, we learned our most important skills in kindergarten, and that includes how to behave when the fire alarm sounds.

As the business-continuance plan is prepared, keep in mind there is no magic shield to protect against the political battles this kind of prioritization will engender. Its never easy to decide who gets to go first when the building is burning down. Keep tempers in check by reminding others that the whole point of the plan is to speed the return to normalcy after a potentially job-destroying disaster. In other words, cooperate or face the real possibility of not surviving the next big one.