IT should drive the business world if bird flu hits, says continuity specialist

Businesses should already be in the planning zone

Current fears about a bird flu pandemic could be compared with the drama over Y2K.

On the one hand, there are those who say that, like Y2K, the avian flu threat is overstated, while others say a Y2K disaster was only averted because of careful preparations. They argue that similar preparations in regard to bird flu should be in train now.

David Thompson, a consultant with IT service company Xacta consultant, plumps for precautions. A business continuity specialist, his job is to alert ICT professionals and others to the wisdom of putting disaster plans in place, so a company can carry on in the event of such a disaster.

Conventional ICT disaster recovery focuses on IT and communications infrastructure, but business continuity has a wider focus, he says. It covers the people, processes, assets and relationships that are crucial to business’ operation where they touch on technology.

The drug companies are making a lot of noise about the effectiveness of medication, he told a recent Computer Society audience, but no one can really predict what would happen to the virus should it mutate so it can be transmitted between humans. It is doubtful current remedies would be able to combat it.

Given this, the most sensible immediate precautions are limited to general measures, such as hand-washing and avoiding unnecessary contact with people who may be infected, as well as telling sick people to stay home.

On the ICT front, this raises the question of how possible it would be for people to do essential work from home. This means remote links from the office must be reliable and secure — yet another reason why a domestic upgrade to broadband is important. A programme of replacing desktops with laptops would also enhance mobility. Thin-client solutions, such as Citrix, might also be appropriate, particularly for staffers with slow connections. It would also avoid inconsistent data developing on a number of PCs.

Alternative sites on the server-side should also be investigated, in case of staff shortages or an entire office being quarantined and, eventually, having to discontinue operation. Load-balancing procedures should also be put in place to avoid overloading a particular server, says Thompson.

In addition, the internet could become overloaded and collapse periodically and this needs to be taken into account. Illness among telco staff might also impact on network functioning.

Businesses should discuss their plans with telcos, warning them of any likely shifts in demand, says Thompson. Communications should be spread across as many technologies as possible, to keep everything up and running. Key database snapshots should also be backed up to permanent media.

Thompson produced a chart tracking the phases of a pandemic. We should already be in the planning zone, he says. The next stage is “border management”, to keep out infection. With such precautions in place and some luck, businesses might never have to enter the “red zone”. This would involve containing infection clusters or even full-scale pandemic management.

The business continuity plan should plan for those infected being absent and incapable of work for a minimum of six to ten days.

“I’m saying plan for four to six weeks’ absence to be absolutely safe,” says Thompson. “If your business is not planning, get people planning. I’m not a great supporter of IT driving the business, but there are times when this should happen.”

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