The Stack Archive

Disaster recovery: Can we prepare our IT systems for incidents like the Holborn Fire?

Tue 14 Apr 2015

Jules Taplin wonders how ready most companies are to re-establish business in the wake of a disaster as uncompromising and unavoidable as the fire near Holborn underground station which caused internet outages across London on April 1st…

In one of the most densely packed locations of the UK a fire broke out underground on 1 April, causing the evacuation of 5000 people. Exactly two weeks after the incident there are still companies broadcasting on their websites that their emails are down. For an established business, having one temporary inbound email address and no outbound email addresses changes things significantly; internal communications rely heavily on email, as do processes. With employees denied access to working email business functions start to slip, customer service deteriorates and the end result is that businesses lose their financial standing. To compound the problem, if you’re not able to receive sales enquiries, the subsequent drop in orders can lead to the erosion of an often finely-balanced profit margin.

An IT disaster-recovery service is one solution that can mitigate the effects of a natural catastrophe, but it’s a choice that needs to be made carefully. Do you opt for straight backup, a disaster recovery product such as replication (which you need to manage in-house), an outsourced disaster-recovery service or a full business continuity solution? This will come down to the level of risk you wish to take and the budget you want to dedicate to it.

Some of the companies that were impacted by the Holborn fire coped very well. One that I know of – positioned just above the apex of the fire – runs all its IT in the cloud, and simply picked itself up and relocated the work environment. Naturally it took time to relocate staff, configure workstations and reset the working environments, but the company was able to cope well with minimal disruption, and would have seen a few hours – or at most a day – of impact to business from the fire. At least they didn’t have to relocate their IT as well, which would have been an impossible task during in such a public crisis.

Others have not been so lucky – even firms that have invested heavily in disaster-recovery solutions, thinking themselves safe with replication products, have said that these solutions haven’t provided what they need in such an event, chiefly because they had not anticipated the work and time that it would take to recover an IT system from replicated images. Weeks after the Holborn incident, they’re still not at 100% productivity. When the whole office has been evacuated and the business is trying to focus on the relocation of staff, it’s already a stressful time – let alone when you’re trying to rebuild your IT systems and make them work for everybody so that productivity can resume. Two weeks later, some companies are still struggling towards that stage.

So, having your business in the cloud seems to offer better protection during a disaster than replication products alone. But take a company that went through a fire back in 2012: with 200 employees evacuated during a building fire which took out all IT systems, it was able to resume all business functions again within 40 minutes. This is because a mix of on-premise and cloud servers were recovered in advance (called pre-recovery) of the disaster onto a virtual platform standing by in case of just such a circumstance. The company still had to physically relocate their staff, but all the post-relocation IT configuration had been anticipated, so it was purely a case of accessing a recovery IT system from a new URL via secure VPN.

In addition, one could opt for a full business continuity plan which offers workplace recovery and gives 100% confidence of full return to business as usual – in the time it takes to get your employees to your new workspace.

It is possible to protect yourself against incidents such as the Holborn fire; it just requires some thought about your needs and the solutions that will work for you in your hours of need. And if you think you’re already covered, it’s probably worth confirming the fact. The best way to accomplish this is to go through a full recovery exercise without notice. It’s only in this test environment that you will see how well you really would have coped with the Holborn fire.

Jules Taplin is Technical Director with Plan B Disaster Recovery


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