Indepth: What is Disaster Planning & Business Continuity?

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Disaster Planning in the event of a floodBusiness Continuity and Disaster Planning are actually two very different things, as explained below.

Business Continuity enables you to keep trading and running your business seamlessly if disaster strikes. So if your servers went down after a flood or fire, your customers and staff may not even notice. Think of it like an Uninterruptible Power Supply or a back-up generator system. If the electricity supply goes down then the back-up kicks in more or less immediately, so you don't suffer a loss of supply and can continue working.

Disaster Planning is about identifying the things that can go wrong with your business and then building in a routine for doing something about it, either by prevention or recovery afterwards. The most basic level is a back-up so you can recover all your data after a computer crash.

So which is the most important for your business? Think of it like a line with two extremes at either end.

At one end, you may need a Business Continuity system to ensure no loss of service regardless of what may happen, whether through fire, flood or some other major event. At the other end, you may decide that recovery alone is sufficient so you copy your data to a CD every night, keep it off premises and hope you never have to resort to it.

The choice of how far along the line you go depends on how much money you have to spend and how important a seamless operation is to you.

For example, if you run a 24/7 operation providing real-time cover for a service operation to hundreds of clients who rely on you for support, Business Continuity would be essential to make sure you can continue to deliver that level of support.

If, on the other hand, you run a consultancy where you are selling expertise, it may be more economical for you to have a robust, well-tested back-up system. With this system, PC equipment could be loaned and quickly set up with the back-up facility used to replace all documents and software. This would ensure your company was up and running with the minimum of disruption at a fraction of the cost of a true Business Continuity solution.

Perform an audit

Disaster Planning in the event of a fireThe first stage in deciding how far along the line to go is to undertake an audit. This involves identifying each piece of equipment you have and its purpose, with your maintenance schedule or asset list acting as the starting point for this. Now consider what would happen if you lost the use of that piece of equipment, and do that for everything you have. This will give you a good idea of how dependent you are on each of your systems.

Then, for those items where you would suffer an impact if you lost it, consider these three questions;

  • How can you stop the disaster from happening? This is about protection and can be either physical security or making sure that your equipment is well-maintained and of sufficient quality. A recent report in GM Commerce (Issue 09, Jan 2008) highlighted that 1.1 million hours PER DAY is wasted by office staff in the UK rebooting their computers. In total, each employee spends an average of 2 working days per year switching their computers on and off after it freezes on them.
  • How will you cope if you lost use of the system? If it's business critical then you may want to look at a Business Continuity option, otherwise you may be able to do without the piece for a short period or alternatively make arrangements for a temporary replacement. Your maintenance contract provider should be able to provide you with hire or loan equipment whilst yours is being replaced or repaired.
  • How will you recover any lost data? Even if you don't need continuity and could obtain replacement equipment, the loss of data may destroy you. A significant proportion of businesses who suffer data loss subsequently go out of business, with some commentators putting the figure as high as 70-80% within 2 years. This highlights the importance of effective, robust back-up arrangements.

So, in summary, review which equipment you are most dependent on and then establish a plan for what you would do if you lost it. Read How to Help your Business Survive Disasters for details of different methods you can use to both protect your company and recover from disasters that may befall your IT systems.