Disaster recovery lessons

Hurricane Katrina's devastation has hit the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama hard, and disaster relief efforts are at last underway. We all wish the best for our colleagues and their families in the affected areas.

The pictures from the hurricane brought to mind a story my wife once told. She used to do customer support for a large database company, and once when she was pulling the late shift got the following call at 2 a.m.: "How deep does the water have to be in the computer room before we push the red button?" I'd like to think this is one of those urban legends that are rife in the computer world, or at least that it's one of those apocryphal tales made up by mainframe database weenies to mess with the rest of us. But I'm not quite sure.

I know of a major corporate IT room in a Midwestern city whose "remote" site is literally two city blocks away from the company's primary location. The good news for them is that they probably have minimal exposure to hurricanes there.

The less-than-good news is that their entire IT operation and much of their company's shareholder value might evaporate should a propane truck and an inexperienced teenage driver in a street rod happen to intersect violently at some point halfway between the two.

As you look at the news this evening, imagine what you would do if you were in charge of disaster preparedness for a site in the area affected by Katrina. Would you have done well by your company, or would your business, like your IT center, now be completely under water?

John, my oftentimes correspondent from Illinois, sent me a note last week. Now over the course of our correspondence, I have come to understand that John is not one to mince words. So I have pruned his e-mail of some of the comparisons he made between the speed of the official response to the disaster and the need for IT senior management to provide for a quick way to get corporate IT sites back online in situations such as this.

John does make a very important point in his note to me that I'd like to share, however:

"Katrina, especially in the early days, taught all of us one other major lesson that I thought we all already knew: you need command / control / communications. Someone has to be in charge."

If you already knew that, and if your team already has a list of disaster instructions, including a hierarchy of whom to call when things hit the fan, then good. If not, this is a really good time for some self-examination. Ask your team if they all know whom to call in the event of an emergency.

And now ask yourself how long can your company's IT operations remain offline? For some unfortunate companies in the New Orleans area, by the time you read this it may be two weeks and counting.

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