As Lights Flicker ...

E-businesses get serious about disaster recovery

Its an axiom of e-business: If youre running a Web site, you cant afford downtime, particularly unexpected downtime that knocks customers off line and threatens their transactions and data.

With demanding customers expecting 24-by-7 uptime from Web sites and the competition only a click away, every second offline means potential customers, and dollars, are lost.

But, realistically, just how much downtime are you willing to tolerate when disaster strikes, and how much are you willing to pay for the disaster recovery and business continuity services that can help you stay in business or recover quickly no matter what? As the ongoing power crisis causes lights to flicker all over California, e-businesses everywhere have begun to ask themselves those questions and to put updated disaster recovery plans in place. Increasingly, e-businesses are turning to disaster recovery providers for backup and co-location, which allow them to recover from a blackout or other breakdown in minutes rather than hours. For that, however, e-business managers say theyre paying up to 25 percent of their overall IT budgets.

Why are they willing to pay so much? At PrimeLearning Inc., Chief Technology Officer Derek Humphreys said it would be extremely difficult to sustain business if customer confidence were lost due to disaster-caused downtime or data loss. Thats why, even though his company is in Stamford, Conn., he has put in place a disaster recovery plan that takes into account any type of incident.

PrimeLearning provides online training to corporations. A loss of data, including test scores, would be almost impossible to recover from, Humphreys said. "If there was a disaster and we didnt have an appropriate plan in place, it is something that would greatly affect our customers and shatter all confidence in our ability to deliver and maintain their data," he said. "Thats not just a dent on the résumé. We would go out of business."

To ensure that PrimeLearning can continue operations in the event of a disaster, Humphreys chose to co-locate his Web servers at a New Jersey facility run by Comdisco Inc., of Rosemont, Ill. Live-production boxes and staging boxes are all located at Comdiscos facilities in New Jersey. To further ensure availability, Comdisco mirrors all of PrimeLearnings data at its facility in Wooddale, Ill. The setup will enable Humphreys to bring his site back up in less than 8 hours.

E-business managers have a wide variety of disaster recovery and business continuity services from which to choose. The high-availability services of the type Humphreys currently uses allow for recovery in hours, and businesses can also select services that mirror transactions as well as data and promise zero unplanned downtime. (See Tech Analysis, Page 57.)

While the lag is acceptable for his business model right now, Humphreys said that as PrimeLearning expands internationally in the future, it will not be acceptable.

"Murphys law pretty much dictates that when it comes to e-business, there is no safe window for a disaster to occur," Humphreys said. "So when it comes to a disaster recovery plan, the obvious return on investment is my ability to sleep at night."

Not that a good nights rest comes inexpensively. Humphreys estimates that he spends about a quarter of his IT budget on disaster recovery. Still, to many IT managers, its a small price to pay for staying in business and preserving customer confidence.

Thats pretty much the way officials at Damian Services Corp. see it, too. On two occasions in the past six months, after being hit by power outages on critical business days, the Chicago provider of online payroll and accounting services to independently owned staffing firms has asked its hosting provider, SunGard Data Systems Inc., to be on emergency alert. Damian hosts its servers at SunGards Northbrook, Ill., data center. Damian also uses software from Veritas Software Corp. to mirror its production environment. The total cost: about 15 percent to 20 percent of the overall IT budget, said Robert Kulla, CIO at Damian.

Damians deal with SunGard is only part of the companys overall disaster recovery plan. Kulla also backs everything up himself on a Quantum Corp. digital linear tape system. And Tom Strenk, chief of staff at Damian, said his strategy encompasses everything from how to recover data to how to restore power in the companys offices using a backup generator.

It means a lot of effort and money, Strenk said. But its what every e-business must do to turn continuous availability from an axiom to a reality.

"It is necessary to have business resumption capabilities," Strenk said. "Disaster recovery is a costly endeavor, but theres a great sense of security we get from knowing weve taken every conceivable precaution to ensure the integrity of our data."