As Earl looms, tips to batten down IT

Experts say IT execs must prepare quickly for what NOAA says could be the most active hurricane season ever

Hurricane Earl today continues to threaten the East Coast in the midst of what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts will be an unusually active hurricane season.

As if on cue, the massive Hurricane Earl is being followed closely in the Atlantic Ocean by tropical storms Fiona and Gaston, and such an active weather pattern could mean major problems for IT operations in the paths of those storms.

A NOAA spokeswoman said that hurricane activity this year could rival 2005, which is the most active year on record. She specifically cited the presence of the La Niña phenomenon, which NOAA describes as cooler-than-normal sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. La Niña causes lower wind shear in the Atlantic Basin, allowing storm clouds to grow and organize there.

"Our hurricane forecaster has said we're in an active hurricane era, and this year's forecast was unusually high," the spokeswoman said.

NOAA is predicting that the Atlantic basin will see 14 to 20 named storms (with top winds of 39 mph or higher). Those will likely include eight to 12 hurricanes (with top winds of 74 mph or higher), of which four to six would be ranked as Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricanes (with winds of at least 111 mph).

With the peak hurricane season between late August and October, IT managers should now be reviewing checklists of steps to follow to ensure that their companies' business continuity and disaster recovery plans are in place, experts say.

The need to keep data centers and the applications they support up and running has become more important over the past five years because of an increasing reliance on automation, said Damian Walch, a director in business consultancy Deloitte & Touche's technology risk practice. As time goes on, the ability to run businesses manually is diminishing, he added.

Meanwhile, the economic downturn has caused many businesses to cut back on disaster recovery and business continuity support, leaving IT systems even more vulnerable than they might normally be when a major storm hits, Walch said.

"What I'm seeing out there are a lot of companies that have put their business continuity or disaster recovery programs on hold or scaled back over the last 12 months," he said, and that has led IT operations to "fall back on bad habits."

As budgets are cut, he noted, companies are decreasing investments in alternate data recovery sites, failing to maintain sufficient capacity on servers and storage, and neglecting to update plans and procedures, he said

"Not only do you have more dependence on [automated] systems, but you now also fewer people to run them, so you don't have the geographic diversity you once had, and therefore your risks have increased," Walch added.

Annie Searle, the principal of Annie Searle & Associates LLC, an independent consulting and research firm, said one of the most important thing businesses can do to prepare for an impending hurricane is to ensure that designated disaster recovery/business continuity staffers are prepared to activate emergency response plans.

"Make clear your evacuation procedures and triggers. Make your [telephone] bridge lines live in order to be able to hold conference calls between [remote sites], for example," she said.

Searle previously headed up the crisis management team at Washington Mutual Bank for six years, overseeing hurricane preparations for facilities in Florida and on the Gulf Coast.

She suggested that the emergence of Web 2.0 technologies can be a significant help to IT workers during an emergency. For instance, social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook can be used for wireless communication when phone lines go out. IT managers should designate one of the social media sites to serve as a bulletin board for employees, she added.

Walch and Searle said it's critical that IT managers take key steps such as the following long before a major storm arrives:

  • Update contact lists with phone numbers and e-mail addresses of vendors, key workers and executives.
  • Identify critical applications and establish the recovery point objectives for each.
  • Notify key employees of their assignments in case a primary location goes offline because of a storm.
  • Take snapshots of server configurations, and ensure that bare metal restores can be performed at alternate disaster recovery sites.
  • E-mail critical business units to notify them of the steps that have been taken to ensure that their processes will remain up in case of an outage in primary facilities.
  • Consider having manual procedures in place to continue business functions in case of an extended data center disruption.

In addition, they said, IT managers should make sure that diesel generators are topped off with fuel, fill reserve fuel tanks, cross-map key business processes to ensure that managers know the tasks of each facility, and let less-critical business units know that their applications or systems may not be available for a while.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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