There is nothing like a string of hurricanes to make us all sit back and think about disaster recovery planning. Getting hit with national-level disasters brings into focus how important it is to think broadly about how we will deal with a disaster when, not if, it strikes.

In IT, it is common to think of disasters in an overly technical context: primarily focusing on having secondary servers, backups or redudant network connections. Of course, we quickly have to consider plans that handle not only the unavailability of services, but complete loss of facilities and potentially even the loss of a region; and not only for a day but perhaps a week or more.

Being able to continue to do business during a large scale disaster can be critical financially, and may prove a key customer relationship component as customers gain faith in your disaster planning instead of growing concerned by your decisions as to where to locate your facilities or failure to ensure services.

Of course, we know that getting data backed up and protected off site, preferably very far away in regions sharing no overlap in potential disaster scenarios, is crucial. Being able to access or recover that data quickly may often be overlooked. In the event of a large disaster, being able to recover data, in a reasonable time, to an unpredictable location might be very important. Good planning means more flexibility when we need it.

In many cases, cloud computing is potentially going to come to our rescue to provide us with the ability to spin up compute resources quickly when our own physical sites are offline indefinitely. But many traditional offsite data storage technologies, such as tapes shipped to underground vaults, may not only be impacted by the regional disaster, but may have little or no reasonable means of being used to restore data to the necessary locations that we have available to us at that time. Tape, while a wonderfully cost effective and robust storage media, can be nearly impossible to ship to a cloud provider and load into newly onlined systems during an emergency.

More careful planning about how data will be recovered when we cannot plan around the available sites that we will be able to access is needed for many companies. Business location can quickly go from a key “known” to one of the biggest “unknowns”.

But more than anything, large scale disaster planning is about people. Computers we know how to replicate, how to protect, and how to insure. Data we can move, but people we often forget – until it is too late.

I have been fortunate enough to get to work with some of the largest scale disaster planning in the world’s biggest companies - having gone through a relocation of twenty thousand people across the country from one region to another in order to break up the risk of having nearly all key staff located in a shared disaster zone; where a single disaster might have eliminated the ability for all redundant staff to remain redundant. Planning ahead to have people located in regions that are unlikely to be impacted simultaneously will go a long way to providing for business continuity.

Not all companies have so much flexibility, however, and will likely need to deal with maintaining the availability of specific human resources rather than simply having redundant people in disparate regions covering for one another. During a disaster, people rarely have much warning and often have priorities other than business ones that require their focus. Good disaster planning will provide for rapid action plans and reduce time needed to think about the disaster and more time to act both on business, and personal, continuity needs.

In many cases, such as those involving hurricanes like we have witnessed most recently, companies with solid, tested, and well known remote work procedures can switch from in office setups to work from home or work from alternate location needs at the drop of a hat. At the same company that split key workers into different regions, we also had a one day per week work from home policy – all key staff were required to work from home at least one day each week to ensure that their remote work systems and processes were always tested and ready.

Putting people first and making it a priority to proactively move them out of harm’s way, avoid sending them to an office or on-premises position unless absolutely necessary, promoting early relocation to safer areas or regions, and lowering the overhead of disaster reaction through good planning will allow for better staff coverage for the business, and better safety for employees when a disaster hits.

Getting the business covered before a disaster strikes means that employees can more quickly act to ensure family security; and getting their families, homes, pets, and lives to safety is the fastest way to get them back to work and focused on getting the business back underway.

Planning, testing, practicing all practical locational agnosticism, and putting your peoples’ needs first can all lead to a disaster planning process that looks after your business, and your people. It is people that your business needs to operate and it is people that you need to protect.

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