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Planning for and coping with IT disasters

What do we mean by ‘disaster’?

Most people think of a ‘disaster’ as being some kind of cataclysmic event such as a fire or a flood or the theft of all the computers in a building and while these would indeed be ‘disasters’ in a very real sense, in IT terms a major system or hard disk failure would be just as much of a ‘disaster’ as it would render your systems un-usable.

How does this sort of thing differ from being infected with a virus?

Most of the time, you can get rid of a virus and recover some of the data you might have lost or which had been corrupted – and few viruses try to wipe data now anyway. A ‘disaster’ or major hard disk failure on the other hand, simply renders your computer systems and networks entirely unusable and inaccessible. If you can’t function without computers, you won’t be able to carry on doing business.

How serious are these types of disasters

You often hear figures being thrown around – one common one for example is that 90% of businesses that lose data from a disaster are forced to shut within two years of the disaster – and while these must be taken with a pinch of salt, they are often very serious and potentially fatal for businesses that are dependent on IT but have not managed the risk of their systems suddenly being lost.

How much of a chance is there of it happening to us though?

That’s a risk assessment only you can make – but disasters do happen and they do have serious consequences. They are not beyond the bounds of imagination – something as simple as major power failure, for example, that lasted for a day or more, could cause a business serious problems.

How can we recover from a "disaster"?

All your files and applications should be backed up and stored on another device – usually a tape drive, somewhere off site. If they are on-site they are just as likely to be damaged as the main computers. You can also use remote services that backup your data over broadband connections. If you do not have a backup copy, you have got a real problem as all your data will have to be recovered from other sources – individual users’ laptops, contacts email boxes and so on.

Just thinking about what a real ‘disaster’ might mean – and how much disruption it would cause – ought to be enough to persuade anyone to take regular backups. Without them, it might take weeks for you to recover from a fire, flood, explosion or something similar.

What do IT people mean by ‘disaster recovery’ and by ‘business contingency planning’ and what is the difference between them?

The first is a term used to describe the plan that an organisation would have to recover to normal IT operations in the event of a major disaster. The second is used to describe the plan that would enable a business to carry on as near to normally as it could in the event that something stopped it operating normally.

‘Business contingency’ tends to apply to the wider spectrum of business activity rather than just the computers – such as where people would work from if they could not get into their normal building. The disaster recovery plan for IT systems would usually just be a part of the overall business contingency plan. These terms tend to be used by large organisations although there is no reason why smaller companies can’t have their own versions of these plans.

What can we do to avoid disasters happening?

Prevention is always better than the cure. Buy systems that have a good reputation for reliability and decent warranties, and have your systems maintained and checked every now and again by your supplier. Take regular backups and keep copies somewhere other than your main office; and check that they will restore properly.

If you really depend on IT to function, work on a disaster recovery and/or business contingency plan. It is also a good idea to make sure your internet security and usage policies are watertight. And of course, you should always treat your IT systems with tender loving care.