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Issue of December 2005 

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Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity

When the going gets tough

Anyone can put a DR set-up in place, but few can actually ensure business continuity. Unless organisations get this clear, we are going to see repeated instances of 'submerging' or, worse, calamities that make a mockery of infrastructure and put companies out of business. by Anil Patrick R and Soutiman Das Gupta

Disasters are things that only happen to others—till you get hit. Going by the recent spate of natural disasters in India, it is time you geared up to face disasters. In case you already have a DR set-up in place, you should re-evaluate your business continuity strategy. If this is not done now, it might be too late.

Recipe For Disaster

The preparedness of Indian organisations to face disaster is still largely lagging behind when it comes to DR, let alone BC. To justify this statement, we need to look at the figures of Network Magazine’s Infrastructure Strategies (IS) 2005 survey. According to the results, only 32 percent actually have a DR/BC set-up in place. “In terms of readiness in the event of a disaster, the figure (32 percent) will be much lower than this. It is certainly not enough to simply have DR solutions if you’re not trained and ready to be up and running during a disaster,” says C Kajwadkar, Vice-president, NSE.IT.

Technology Isn’t Enough

Just having a DR/BC set-up is not sufficient, as many organisations found out the hard way during the recent floods. As is the case with security, technology is just one part of DR/BC. The user angle is more crucial.

It is difficult to predict the challenges thrown up by real-world situations. This becomes all the more difficult if regular simulated trials are not carried out and training is not imparted to users. Organisations have to perform periodic testing of DR/BC procedures with the involvement of end-users and top management to ensure awareness throughout the organisation of what has to be done when things go wrong.

These practices are possible only when companies have Disaster Recovery Planning (DRP) teams in place. Among the surveyed organisations which have DR/BC in place, it is disheartening to note that only half of them have DRP teams. Organisations that have spent money on hardware and software for creating a DR set-up but have failed to provide for a DRP team have made investments that will not be of use when disaster strikes.

The picture is sunnier when we look at companies with DRP teams in place. 76 percent of these organisations simulate disasters regularly.

Right From The Top

When things go wrong, the essential factor is effective leadership and proper information dissemination. This is why there should be mechanisms in place to ensure that there is redundancy in these matters.

For example, there should be multiple levels of redundancy when it comes to assigning roles. If a top-level manager is not present to perform his assigned duties, there should be another person who can carry out the function. This is why it is necessary to have people from business as well as IT in the DRP team; it ensures that clear assignment of roles across teams happens.

Kajwadkar feels that a BCP/DRP team should have two layers. People in the lower layer should identify preventive measures, conduct health checks, make sure that the DR site is up and running, and ensure readiness of DR initiatives. In case of a disaster, the team should spring into action and activate the DR site.

Communicating Right

The next important issue is to have clear-cut communication channels. The biggest deterrent to business continuity when a crisis strikes is widespread misinformation. No matter how prepared your organisation might be in terms of dealing with a disaster, a rumour can cause chaos and lay low the best of plans. (By communication we mean both internal as well as external communication channels.)

There should be clear-cut information dissemination in the organisation from a central point. Internal communications are the most reassuring factor for an employee during disasters. It ensures that things go as planned. This role can be fulfilled by the corporate communication team, individual team leaders, or the DRP teams. It is best if there are dedicated persons assigned to this role.

The role of external communications is even more critical. False and unfavourable information spread among external entities may cause irreparable business loss. Corporate communication teams need to be trained, and more importantly, be in sync with the business during crises to avoid unwanted negative publicity.

Prepare For The Unexpected

Organisations have to perform periodic testing of DR/BC procedures with the involvement of end-users and top management to ensure awareness throughout the organisation of what has to be done when things go wrong

The Mumbai floods brought home the truth that most organisations are not prepared for extended crises. This was clearly visible as many organisation were stranded for days on end as the waters refused to recede.

A disaster may not always be short-lived, and it is important to be self-sufficient for an extended time-frame. This time-frame has to be calculated depending on the business in question and essentials needed to take care of the extended period.

For example, many organisations had BC plans during the Mumbai floods, but no place for the employees to stay. This resulted in many employees looking for accommodation. Yet another example was food running out as employees were stranded for far longer than expected.

It is flaws like these in BC which throw a spanner in an otherwise well-crafted strategy. Managers who can take charge are invaluable in these circumstances.

Examples such as these abound when we collectively look at the experiences faced by organisations in Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. While they may make it easier to get more allotments for DR/BC, it still remains to be seen how effective they will actually be when the next disaster strikes.

Nevertheless, many companies learned from earlier lessons. For example, on the technology front, some of the organisations have shifted from centralised architectures to a mesh architecture for better redundancy.

A case in point is Hindustan Lever Limited’s (HLL) architecture. “The use of centralised communication links have made DRP more reliable. These consist of the VSAT network from HECL with Gurgaon as the first hub connecting around 180 locations. The network also has terrestrial links (about 90) across the country backed by ISDN links to cover Indian offices. Network redundancy is achieved through triangulation,” informs S Narayanan, Corporate Information Security Manager of HLL.

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Indian Express - Business Publications Division

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