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Disaster Recovery Planning: Preparing For The Unthinkable

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In the post-9/11 era, no business should be without a disaster recovery plan. Learn the basics of disaster planning and what you should be doing now.
This chapter is from the book

It is perhaps inevitable that for an entire generation of Americans, the word "disaster" will be inexorably linked to the horrific events that shattered a pleasant morning in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. No other single incident, save perhaps the attack on Pearl Harbor, struck so profoundly or so deeply into the consciousness of the nation.

For most, the experience was a vicarious one—but one made more tangible by the video footage of commercial aircraft smashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) and the subsequent reduction of those buildings—and a wing of the Pentagon—into twisted masses of debris that CNN and other news agencies repeated over and over in the days and weeks that followed. For those who were actually at ground zero, who were working in the buildings when the terrorists struck or sifting through the rubble of the WTC or the Pentagon in the aftermath of the attacks, the reality of the disaster was overwhelming.

There had been other disasters before 9/11, and some had taken an even greater toll in terms of human life. However, none had generated such resonance in the minds of those who were not directly affected by the calamity.

It could be argued, of course, that this disaster was different from any other event, both in terms of its emotional impact on a nation and also in a number of other eminently practical ways. The fact that the attacks had been deliberate and intentional acts undertaken in accordance with a carefully thought-out plan, rather than a natural and random event, touched off an emotional whirlwind that for a time impacted the energy and attention spans of everyman. Moreover, as the government braced itself for the possibility of more attacks, air transportation and stock markets were shut down for several days. These actions changed the milieu in which business recovery plans must execute and increased the scope and duration of the disaster.

Aside from the social and political consequences of 9/11, perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the disaster was that so many of the impacted organizations appeared to lack any sort of disaster recovery plan. Of the 440-odd businesses occupying the WTC, the thousands of businesses in Lower Manhattan affected by the interruptions in power, telecommunications and access to facilities, and the numerous governmental entities in the Pentagon, only a small subset—perhaps as few as 200—evidenced preplanned continuity strategies.

This estimate is based on press accounts of the number of firms that formally declared a disaster and activated their contracts with any of the several leading "hot-site" vendors. (A hot-site contract provides for a facility, computer equipment and networks that can be put rapidly into service to replace a subscriber's "production" IT infrastructure when and if normal operations are interrupted by a disaster event.)

To be generous, a few organizations may not have needed the services of a hot-site vendor in the wake of the disaster. In some cases, only "branch office operations," rather than a primary headquarters or important data center, were hosted within or around the WTC, or inside the Pentagon. In a few more cases, organizations may have activated "homegrown" recovery strategies that didn't require the participation of a commercial service provider.

Even with these exceptions factored in, however, the number of companies that were not prepared for the possibility of a disaster like 9/11 were likely the majority. The sad truth is that, as in the case of the 143 companies that simply disappeared in the months and years following the 1993 bombing of the WTC, many of the companies that endured the 9/11 tragedy without a continuity plan will likely not see the end of the decade. These companies will learn their lessons about the importance of disaster recovery planning the hard way, adding further pain and anguish to the already sad memory of that awful event.

Once the immediate sense of threat had ended and the period of mourning had subsided, stories began to emerge about the efforts of organizations to recover from the disasters—to restore business critical operations to some semblance of normalcy. Specific lessons were learned that will be referenced where appropriate in the discussion that follows.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from 9/11, from a disaster recovery perspective, is one of business dependency on information technology and, by extension, its vulnerability to the unplanned interruption of access to information technology (IT) of infrastructure.

Driven by the incentives of cost-efficiency and competition, business has placed more and more of its critical information assets into automated systems and networks. This, in turn, has made business dependent upon the uninterrupted function of the machine, a dependency rarely perceived by those within the corporation who have no direct contact with the IT infrastructure itself. The consequences of a loss of access to the IT infrastructure to the business may never be considered—until a disaster occurs. By then, it is often too late.

Recent business experience—both before and after 9/11—is replete with examples of companies that failed to recover from a disaster. Some were consumed by a flood or fire that demolished offices and data centers, leaving skeletons of twisted metal and smoking rubble. Others died gradually over several years, after being crippled by a catastrophe from which they could never fully recover.

However, in the same historical experience, there are also examples of companies that suffered disasters of the same magnitude and survived. They emerged from the crisis, with critical operations intact, to regain their position in the marketplace and to continue their commercial pursuits.

One must ask the reason for the different outcomes. Why do some companies survive when others fail? Is it simply fate or chance that determines success or failure in disaster recovery?

The word disaster connotes chance or risk. It is derived from the Latin word for "evil star"—a metaphor for a comet, once thought to be a harbinger of some impending doom. While the word embodies a fatalistic view of the unavoidable and inexplicable nature of disaster, it also communicates a positive corollary: Forewarned is forearmed. Knowing in advance that a disaster might happen provides the ability to prepare and to mitigate its consequences.

The insights of the ancient Romans continue to hold truth for modern organizations. Mounting evidence supports the contention that companies can take measures that will improve the likelihood of full recovery following a disaster. Companies that plan for the possibility of a disaster—that implement preventive measures to avoid predictable events and formulate strategies for recovering critical business processes in the wake of events that cannot be prevented—generally do survive disasters.

What is Disaster Recovery Planning?

This book is about disaster recovery planning. As defined here, disaster recovery planning consists of a set of activities aimed at reducing the likelihood and limiting the impact of disaster events on critical business processes.

This preliminary definition may raise a few eyebrows. In the past few years, there has been an effort in some quarters to distinguish the concept of disaster recovery from a related concept, business continuity planning.

To some commentators, disaster recovery pertains to a specific domain of disaster events: recovery from natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Business continuation planning, some argue, covers a broader domain of events, many of which may be less cataclysmic and life threatening in nature. Software viruses, hard disk failures, malicious attacks on systems and networks by hackers or disgruntled employees, and many other factors can and do cause interruptions in normal business processes without necessarily resulting in the widespread regional damage that might be left in the wake of a hurricane.

At the level of semantics, a measure of clarity is contained in the term "business continuity planning" that may not be present in the term "disaster recovery planning." Business continuity more concisely describes the objective of this type of activity, which is to sustain mission-critical business processes during an unplanned interruption event. By contrast, some would argue, the term "disaster recovery" is semantically flawed. By its nature, a disaster is a nonrecoverable event. If recovery is possible, because of the implementation of some planned strategy, then an unplanned interruption event does not, strictly speaking, constitute a disaster.

This book does not seek to contribute to the semantic debate. Suffice it to say that the use of the term disaster recovery planning in this book encompasses the objectives attributed to all of the other forms. Namely, it is a set of activities intended to prevent avoidable instances of unplanned interruption, regardless of cause, and to minimize the impact of interruption events that cannot be avoided.

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