Preparing for the Worst: Avian Flu

Opinion: U.S. businesses should plan to operate with up to 40 percent of their work force absent at the peak of such a pandemic, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The disaster recovery systems that kicked in following Hurricane Katrina last fall were a good sign that many businesses and IT staff had planned ahead. The potential disaster that could loom over the United States in the years ahead will make Katrina seem like a blip on the radar for these disaster plans, however.

That specter is the spread of the avian influenza virus, or bird flu, which—as eWeek Executive News Editor Larry Dignan reports—could become the ultimate test of corporate IT infrastructure and the Internet in sustaining continuity of operations, also known as COOP.

According to a 232-page Department of Homeland Security report released May 3, U.S. businesses should plan to operate with up to 40 percent of their work force absent at the peak of such a pandemic. Many workers among that 40 percent would not necessarily be sick but, rather, caring for others or practicing "social distancing"—in other words, avoiding one another to keep from spreading the disease.

Obviously, many among that 40 percent would still be able to perform their jobs adequately by telecommuting. But thats where the questions start: Is your IT infrastructure capable of that kind of remote traffic? How robust is your VPN? How do you secure all those home systems? Which workers will you allow to telecommute? And which IT personnel will remain in the data centers to ensure things stay running?

But such planning isnt just needed to prepare for a flu that may or may not become widespread here. If Katrina taught us anything, its that disaster can strike at any time. On May 3, a South Pacific earthquake prompted authorities to issue tsunami warnings to Fiji and New Zealand—later canceled when no threat was imminent. Every year, the chances that The Big One could hit San Francisco or Los Angeles increase.

If business continuity in such scenarios seems heartless, consider that COOP in these situations applies not only to private-sector businesses but also to government agencies, hospitals, utilities and other services that will be needed in times of crisis.

If nothing else, preparations for mass telecommuting could go a long way to strengthen current remote access systems, which could push the envelope in creating the virtual office of tomorrow.

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Scot Petersen

Scot Petersen

Scot Petersen is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Prior to joining Ziff Brothers, Scot was the editorial director, Business Applications & Architecture,...