Case study: Pandemic "dress rehearsal" uncovered glitches for one small firm

Not everyone agrees on the need to do a full-boat practice run -- but it can't hurt anything except your short-term expenses

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That problem was easy to resolve. In preparation for a real emergency, all employees were given quality headsets to take home and use when needed in the future.

In general, the rehearsal provided helpful information for the QL2 IT team, Hausler says. One giant relief: The VPN system had never been previously load-tested for use by all Seattle-based workers at one time, but it performed well with all 42 concurrent users. "It absolutely passed the test," Hausler says. "Everybody was able to, for the most part, do their work" and keep the operations going, she explains.

Only one person, a developer, couldn't get in through the VPN, which meant that he couldn't remotely log in to all of the applications he needed for his job that day. The problem was fixed later so he will now have VPN access in a real emergency situation. Following the exercise, the business continuity planning team sought comments from all the workers about their experiences with the drill.

"We came out of that feeling confident," Hausler says. "We learned some things that we can tweak," such as the need for telephone headsets. "And the fact that there were no negative customer impacts was really good, too."

Analysts split on such 'trial runs'

Results aside, industry analysts are split on whether such preparations are worthwhile for companies, especially with today's tight budgets and spending restrictions.

   pandemic

It is a "good idea" for companies, especially large firms, "to come up with any excuse to practice their business continuity plans," says Richard Jones of the Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group. The swine flu can keep employees out of work for a week, typically, and it's important to know how to keep going.

If such an extended office closure would happen, Hausler says, it wouldn't be a significant problem. "For one week, I think our work would pretty much go on."

Not everyone, however, thinks that QL2's work-at-home exercise was worthwhile.

Ken McGee, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., says it's great to have intact and formalized business continuity plans in place, but called the company's rehearsal a poor use of scarce money today because budgets are so tight. Further, he points out, the mortality rate from H1N1 is low enough that such an exercise is not worth the expense.

"In this case there is simply no evidence to suggest that on a wide-spread basis we will have large numbers of people afflicted by H1N1 so that we will see the need for this kind of scenario," McGee explains. If the mortality rate doubled or tripled -- and thus approach other pandemic mortality rates from the past -- then "we'd suggest this" exercise.

Today though, we are not in that place, he says.

"We are also trying to recover from the worst recession in 80 years," McGee says. "You've got to pick your fights with the money you have to spend. Don't pull the fire alarm until there is a genuine fire."

For her part, Hausler feels it was money well spent, even in tough economic times. "The data we provide our customers is mission-critical so anything we can do to ensure minimum data disruption is very important to our business," Hausler says. "Some of our customers have compliance issues and require BCP plans to be in place."

Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. Follow him on Twitter @TechManTalking.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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