Disaster-proof your business, it could save you millions
In these technological times, clever companies prepare for catastrophes before they have happened, writes David Crow
Here in the UK, businesses used to be able to view natural disasters as foreign and exotic. Of course, the images of destruction that played across television screens would elicit feelings of horror and sympathy, but the true cost of the disaster – both emotional and financial – was rarely felt. In today’s globalised marketplace, however, British firms cannot afford to rely on the fact that this small island is relatively lucky when it comes to natural disasters. From Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to earthquakes in China and Pakistan, it’s unthinkable that the tremors of these catastrophes will not be felt in some way by companies in the UK.
Nor is the UK immune when disaster strikes. It’s only a year since flash flooding submerged huge areas of the country, destroying homes and businesses by the hundreds. The ugly spectre of terrorism is also a real danger on British soil. Increasingly, companies realise that they have to make real efforts to save the priceless information that underpins their businesses.
All businesses rely on digital data for nearly every aspect of their operations. From running their own back offices to providing up-to-the-minute financial indicators that allow executives to negotiate big deals, few could survive if their flow of data were interrupted or, in the worst case scenario, lost.
It used to be the case that firms would adopt a “just in time” approach to disaster recovery. They’d wait until the data was lost, and then employ the services of a data recovery firm, who would do their best to try and retrieve the lost files. Even if the files were retrievable, quite often they were out of date; if a file was only backed up once a day at midnight, then by the start of business the next day it would be nine hours too old.
In today’s marketplace, millions of pounds can be lost in the hours between the time when the disaster strikes and the client gets their data back. Now the big names in disaster recovery now offer so called “business continuity” solutions that can get a business up and running within minutes of a catastrophe.
According to Tony Reid, UK services director at Hitachi Data systems, the hardware it supplies for business continuity, including back-up storage and power generators, is important – but it is just a tiny fraction of what business continuity firms need to provide. In fact, technology firms in this space often act as risk managers, looking at a particular business and deciding where vulnerabilities lie. Once the needs have been assessed, Hitachi writes a continuity plan, before providing the hardware and infrastructure to ensure the firm’s data can be salvaged – even after a disaster.
Business continuity firms also offer advice for the future, trying to identify risks years, or even decades, before they effect a business. According to Reid, several institutions in the City are recruiting business continuity specialists to determine how resilient the Thames Barrier will be in twenty years’ time. If the water level keeps rising, says Reid, the cheapest thing might be to move data centres out of the city to safer locations. Other firms are providing recovery plans on what to do in case a bird flu pandemic ends up striking the UK.
The cost of these services depends on two factors. Firstly, the quicker a business needs to get its data after a disaster has happened, the more expensive the service; for some financial institutions in the City, who need to get access data within seconds of a disaster, the bill easily runs into millions of pounds. The second factor depends on how recent the retrieved data needs to be; files which are a few hours old will be less expensive than those which need to be updated every few seconds.
IBM, another big name in this space, offers its 12,000 clients a resilience strategy for virtually every aspect of their businesses. Often staff are one of the first lines of defence against a disaster, so it works with employees to equip them with the skills needed to avert data loss. It’s not all about huge earthquakes and tornadoes; IBM provides a service for everything from a power cut or a cup of coffee spilt on a hard drive to a full-scale natural disaster. Often it is large sites of employees that need the most protection. Call centres, for example, can be a weak spot for businesses when it comes to disasters, especially as they handle the majority of customer interactions.
The true advantage of using a firm like Hitachi or IBM is that they can provide a tailor-made solution for your business, instead of flogging you some technology you might never use. Quite often, a big part of the solution might have nothing to do with hardware, but could simply require a change in the way your business works. Most of it will come down to devising a continuity plan and practising it, ensuring that when a disaster strikes, your business will be able to carry on. Hopefully the day will never come, but at least you’ll be prepared.