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Preparing for disaster

June 1, 2018

When I lived in Chicago, there was an old joke that there are just two seasons: construction and winter. Floridians are well aware of two more seasons: tourist and hurricane. June 1st marks the six-month window where hurricanes are most likely to develop in the Atlantic Basin (The Atlantic Ocean, The Gulf of Mexico and The Caribbean Sea). It is 2018 and already we have seen the devastating effects Tropical Storm Alberto has wrought. With rising water temperatures and climate change, we can expect the annual ritual of “hunkering down” and stocking up on gallons of bottled water to increase in frequency. While most importantly we do what we can in order to protect our families, the next most critical item on the hierarchy of needs is how to protect your business.

 

Last season Florida businesses sustained power outages long after Category 5 storm, Hurricane Irma, barreled through the state. For those not prepared that meant NO ACCESS to e-mail, NO ACCESS to important documents which translated to NO business and a direct hit to the bottom line. 

 

Cloud technology is maturing and will help your business sustain itself during and after a disaster. There are many benefits to decentralizing your data from home base, say on your five-year-old server connected to Comcast internet located in a closet in your South Florida office, and rather placing it in one of Microsoft’s 50 hardened facilities.

 

 Courtesy: Microsoft https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/global-infrastructure/regions

 

 

One of those benefits is that the data is physically stored in a facility that is designed from the ground up to withstand hurricane force winds with redundant power and communications. In other words, if your South Florida office has been unfortunate enough to be without power or worse due to a storm, your customers can still continue to e-mail you at the very least. Communication during this time is imperative. If not just to let your team know what the next course of action is after the storm has run its course.

In a scenario I helped design and implement two years ago, we had a team travel ahead of the storm’s predicted path to a safe location. Armed with a few cell phones, laptops, and Wi-Fi we stood up a small call center from the hotel lobby and were able to respond to customer e-mails and phone calls with access to the exact same information retrievable at the office. This is business continuity.

               

That scenario would not have been successful as it was if we had not planned for a catastrophic disaster. Excluding personal tragedy, catastrophic disaster, in this case, would be defined as physical damage to the centralized server or other incident preventing operation such as loss of power of connectivity. Without planning for business continuity the timeline for hurricane affecting your business would play out something like this:

 

Day 1: The day before a hurricane hits you make one last final backup to tape and place it in a safe location that is offsite. We’ll assume there is a regular backup schedule already in place, though in my experience this is not always an accurate assumption.

 

Day 2: The hurricane finally makes landfall and knocks out power to the office building your e-mail and file server are in place. Battery backups in the building beep as they desperately try to keep power running to the server as they patiently wait for the generators to the building kick on. Alas, the generators fail or are redirected to what the building owners deem to be more critical than your server. The battery backups eventually drain and the servers abruptly power down. Perhaps, you had the foresight to gracefully power down the server. The result is the same. No e-mail is flowing in or out of your business during this time.

 

Day 3: Due to the storm there is a flood from the excessive rain and your e-mail/file server happen to be located inside in a closet on the ground floor. While not a major flood by any means it’s enough to submerge the computer and permanently damage the hardware preventing the server from powering on even if there was power.

 

Day 4: Power is on and Comcast restored your internet connection in record-breaking time but your server is not online. You have no method of e-mailing or retrieving your documents during this time. You call Dell or HP and quickly order a replacement server for several thousand dollars.

 

Day 5: Your vendor of choice has overnighted a server to your office (at a premium) and now it’s time for your IT team to really earn their paycheck. They need to mount the server in a new location as the old one is still damaged from the flood, install the software and configure the server so that it’s finally ready to begin the process to restore from the backup you made four days earlier because you were proactive enough to already have a backup method in place. Assuming the backup is valid it still contains data that is four days old with none of the e-mail that contained the purchase orders your customers were sending you, or the invoices you typically send or the request for materials you need in order to restart your production line.

 

Day 6: Your data has been fully restored and you have an unplanned capital expense in the form of a new server with four-day-old e-mail sitting in a new location. Aside from the thousands of dollars and near week-long outage your business sustained, everything is back to normal. That is until you tune in to the local news and the weatherman announces a new tropical storm has formed in the Atlantic with an ominous forecast indicating that you’re once again in the line of another storm.

 

                Such was the cost of doing business in South Florida. However, with a little planning it doesn’t have to be that way for businesses in areas prone to natural disasters. With cloud-based technologies such as Microsoft Office365 and Google’s G-Suite, it’s possible to continue to work wherever an internet connection is available. If you had planned with business continuity in mind your disaster preparation plan would look more like this:

 

DAY 1: Your data would already be backed up using Microsoft’s OneDrive or Google Drive. This would be a good time to get out of the impending hurricane’s path to a safe location with internet connectivity still available.

 

DAY 2: The hurricane makes landfall and you, your family and your team are safe. You continue to work on the same documents, not missing e-mails or chat conversations.

 

DAY 3: By now you start to get the picture. You’ve planned in advance and now you’re securely storing your company’s documents in the cloud where only the people you designate access to can modify and collaborate.

 

 

With a myriad of options available to those who opt for the cloud, the costs are surprisingly low. Leveraging a concept known as utility computing, you only pay for what you use. One day you have 10 employees, you pay for 10 copies of Microsoft Office and 10 e-mail accounts. A month later you grow to 15 employees and you only pay for the additional 5 copies. Better yet, in exchange for a low monthly fee (services start at $2 per month), you have access to the latest version of Microsoft Office for as long as you’re a subscriber. No need to pay an exorbitant cost every upgrade cycle. If for any reason you decide to leave the platform, you can download your data and take it with you. You own your data.

 

If there’s anything to take away from this piece, it is to plan, plan, plan. Plan for worst case scenarios. Mitigate those risks using the same techniques major corporations – enterprise-class organizations - use. You just may be pleasantly surprised by how obtainable implementing an enterprise-class solution is for your organization when preparing for business continuity.

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