Listen to Mom

Among the nuggets of wisdom that fell from my mom's lips, my favorite is: "Expect the worst. You'll never be disappointed." If you're planning to move a portion of your IT operations to India, your disaster recovery plan had better involve a risk management assessment loaded with worst-case scenarios. Otherwise, you might not just be disappointed. You might be fired.

Like the U.S., India is prone to natural disasters. There are floods. Winds and cyclones cause destruction every year. Earthquakes happen.

But unlike the U.S., India benefits from disaster recovery programs sponsored by the United Nations, presumably because the country's infrastructure is more fragile than those of other nations or because its ability to respond is less robust. Even the U.S., with its notoriously parsimonious aid to developing nations, includes a special funding program for disaster recovery in India. Perhaps as India increases its wealth by importing IT jobs from this country, it will reciprocate in kind one day.

Today, however, it is the recipient of outside disaster recovery help, a fact to keep in mind when you consider what appear to be low-cost offshore IT services.

All this isn't to say that the buildings that house data centers in Bangalore are at more risk of being hit by, say, an earthquake than those perched along the San Andreas fault in Silicon Valley. There's far less risk of an earthquake in India, in fact. But just in case, you'd better make certain that your offshore outsourcer has picked its site and built its building with a nervous eye on the Richter scale. If the outsourcing rep is sanguine and assures you that you needn't worry about such a thing, you'd better worry.

Just like any nation plagued by natural disasters, the U.S. has a mixed record of getting regions up off their knees after Mother Nature has whacked them with hurricanes, floods, tornados and temblors. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been both praised and damned over the years for its responses to one tragedy or another. That's why smart IT organizations don't even consider the possibility of aid from FEMA when they're designing their companies' disaster recovery plans. They expect to handle any problems themselves.

But at a recent conference where Indian outsourcers were pitching their cost-effective, highly talented IT workers to software vendors, I heard about the close cooperation between the Indian government and outsourcers "in everything from tax incentives to disaster recovery." Hmmm.

You'd be well advised to deal with companies like Sonata Software Ltd., which doesn't lean on the Indian government and backs up the data center in its Bangalore headquarters to a replicant server room hundreds of miles east, across the mountains in the coastal city of Chennai. Others, like Wipro Ltd. and Tata Consultancy Services, offer very similar disaster recovery plans for their customers. Anything less than a fully redundant data center is, as my mom would have drily said, courting disappointment.

If you had to have a disaster recovery plan only for your data in India, the situation would be easy. But you need one for people, too. When disaster strikes (and it will), does your outsourcer have a plan for how soon key employees will be on the job to ensure that your business gets back on track? For example, does the company have a private transportation plan in the event that public transit comes to a standstill? And given that the CIA labels India's communications systems as having "mediocre service," how will your outsourcer deal with outages after a disaster?

Also, I think it's absolutely essential that you hold your Indian outsourcer to disaster recovery standards that are higher than your own. Why? Because you're not there.

A few years ago, I was in the Seattle area shaking hands with Boeing's vice president in charge of computing and communication systems when an earthquake struck. After the first round of ground wobbling stopped, people evacuated the buildings and met at predetermined gathering points. The VP took a single call on his cell phone and chatted with a couple of underlings in accordance with IT's disaster plan. He was calm, even lighthearted. I wondered why.

He said, "Oh, I can see that everything is taken care of. People are OK. Systems are OK."

He could "see" because he was there. That's why your Indian (or your Canadian or Irish) outsourcer needs to be held to a higher standard for disaster recovery -- because you won't be able to see for yourself. As my mom also used to say, "Seeing is believing." Mark Hall is a Computerworld editor at large. Contact him at mark_hall@computerworld.com.

Special Report

Preparing For The Worst

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