How companies can share joint disaster recovery hot sites

Be prepared for skepticism at all levels

IT staff at Bowdoin College in Maine and Loyola Marymount University in California are building a joint disaster recovery facility, with each institution hosting a disaster recovery hot site for the other. The CIOs at both schools, Bowdoin's Mitch Davis and LMU's Erin Griffin, say that their experience can be a model for other cooperative IT projects, even among business rivals.

The first step is to conceive the possibilities of cooperative projects, Davis says. "When Erin and I talked about this to [a gathering of] midmarket businesses, they said 'We can't do this; we're in manufacturing,'" he recalls. But Davis pointed out they all buy materials from the same group of suppliers. Why not have the respective IT groups cooperate on a business-to-business purchasing application and also back each other up, he asked.

"When you approach this with the sense that you cannot do it, you probably won't do it," Davis says.

Be prepared for skepticism at all levels. "Conceptually, it so pushed the boundaries of everything we'd read in the literature about how to do things like this," says Dan Cooke, director of systems administration at LMU. "It seemed really daunting when we first started."

For both CIOs, the dominant attitude seems to be "we can do this, so get it done."

"You can put a lot of people in a room and they can talk about getting something done," Davis says. "But if you put a smaller number of people in the room and tell them to get something done, they have to act."

Bringing the two teams together in such a context was an eye-opener. What happens is that the protective bubble around each group gets broken. "Outside of that bubble, someone can say to you, 'Why are you doing that?'" Davis says. "You can look at the results people are getting, find out what are the pitfalls, what they've learned. And you can take all that and apply it, and make that learning part of this new project."

"As we worked [together], it started seeming much more tangible and realistic," Cooke says.

"[The two teams] have a lot in common personality-wise," Griffin says. "I think it's been a lot of fun for them."

Focusing on VMware and other technologies

Griffin describes the basic evolution of the project as an almost matter-of-fact process that competent IT professionals are well equipped to handle. "We started by laying out on the table ideas about potential technologies," she says. The team quickly decided to leverage the in-progress changes to both schools' network infrastructure, specifically major network upgrades, a high-bandwidth link to Internet2 and especially server virtualization based on VMware software and blade servers.

"So we said, 'Let's build [the disaster recovery site] on VMware," Griffin says. "Then we asked questions like, 'How would that work? How can we leverage that?'" The teams decided what initial services and applications would be deployed in the disaster recovery site. "We asked questions like 'What do we need in place to build out these capabilities?'"

The CIOs acted as facilitators, resources and sometimes whip crackers.

"There's a lot of structure internally [in the project]," Davis says. "It's not something that just pops up and happens." Project management skills were an essential element in developing and implementing the disaster recovery plan. These were wedded to IT disciplines such as data analysis: What kinds of data did the schools have, how was it stored, what needed to be backed up and how often?

Davis insisted that such questions be addressed with the owners of the data. When you involve data owners, including administrators, faculty and students, they want to know 'Hey, what are you doing with my data?' Davis says. "They start to feel they're involved, that they're making the decisions," he says.

"You could on your own [as the IT group] create a whole data backup system off-site," he says. "But then the constituents would see something like a requirement for stronger passwords as an intrusion by IT." Instead, he says, building trust with the constituents means IT can get its job done more effectively. "When you have that trust, everyone is pushing forward rather than building walls of resistance."

One thing both sides, including two CIOs with very definite ideas, had to practice was humility. "When I see Erin's idea is better, the hard thing is to back off, to not be in a leadership role because a certain expertise belongs to someone else," Davis says. "But you talk it out, and [then] it's fine."

Exploiting conflict

Davis also doesn't shy away from conflict. At Bowdoin, he has introduced the principles in the book Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by author and business consultant Patrick Lencioni, and he urged those principles on the disaster recovery project team. "The book is about how not to act in a team and how to call it out when you see someone acting that way," he says.

"People are adverse to conflict," Davis says. "I use conflict for change." But isn't conflict at odds with a collaborative mind-set, especially in higher education? "In academia, people rewrote collaboration as compromise," he says. "In compromise, everyone agrees. And a lot of times, nothing gets done. Or you end up with a compromised solution that pleases everyone but doesn't work for anyone."

Davis says that "moments of conflict" can be very hard for people to get through. "But at the end, change happens," he says. "The goal is to solve a problem rather than mediate the conflict."

One result is that a decision can be made without everyone having to agree on it. "But the rest have to get behind it," Davis says. "And if you've built a strong, trusted relationship with them, they will recognize that this decision has been made to go forward. [This approach] does create disruption, but out of that, you can create some great conversations."

This story, "How companies can share joint disaster recovery hot sites" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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