Why disaster recovery planning can save lives

After Hurricane Katrina left its mark on Louisiana, the CIO of LifeShare Blood Centers says the need for a disaster recovery plan hit home.

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From Katrina to Sandy, tornadoes in the plains, flooding in the south and wildfires throughout the west, natural disasters threaten our world with destruction every year. The cost to rebuild and recover is phenomenal, so companies across the globe are investing in disaster recovery solutions to mitigate their losses and protect their data from these cataclysmic events.

That’s a lesson LifeShare Blood Centers learned when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

LifeShare Blood Centers, located in Shreveport, La. and established in 1942, supplies hospitals and over 100 medical facilities in Louisiana, east Texas and southern Arkansas with vital red blood cell, plasma and platelet components desperately needed, especially during critical events such as natural disasters.

According to the organization, one in three residents will require blood at some point during their lifetime. This means a supply must always be available.

Katrina exposes challenges

LifeShare Blood Centers recognized a pressing need for IT disaster recovery services when Hurricane Katrina hit. "Katrina raised havoc for our company and blood supply," says Ric Jones, CIO at LifeShare Blood Centers. "The storm closed several of our regional donor facilities, increased blood demand substantially, prevented donors from giving blood and, consequently, decreased levels of critical blood types to dangerously low levels."

If its primary data center experiences downtime, the nonprofit organization cannot collect the data necessary to gather and distribute its critical, life-saving blood supply.

According to Jones, LifeShare's donor roster is more than 150,000 deep. They collect and typically process about 500 donors a day. The primary data center in Shreveport cannot be down, ever -- not even for a few hours. In addition to the data it collects, LifeShare must comply with regulatory requirements from the U.S. Food and Drug administration and AABB standards, which require a secondary site with robust data protection and replication in case the main data center goes dark.

"LifeShare hired another disaster recovery vendor just after Katrina, but soon began experiencing data backlogs that lasted for hours at a time. In addition, the team was having difficulty scheduling annual testing to ensure server failover. That was more than two years ago," says Chris Ortbals, VP of product management at Sungard.

"It became obvious that we needed to build contingencies into our planning and disaster recovery program and, to do so, we needed a new disaster recovery service provider who could ensure the 24/7 availability of our critical IT systems and infrastructure, plus the seamless, uninterrupted operation of our blood banking programs," adds Jones.

Step 1: Choose a vendor

Jones says that picking a vendor that could supply them with a failover recovery hot site was at the top of their priority list. They used Gartner research to conduct a review and evaluation of possible service providers, and the research led them to Sungard AS.

To solve these challenges and ensure 24/7 data availability, LifeShare decided to use Sungard Availability Services Recover2Cloud to protect its crucial data, including 12 servers and numerous critical applications that handle the vital blood data — donors, inventory, blood drives — as well as the financial and payroll systems. Its small IT staff works hand-in-hand with Sungard's support staff to ensure the data is constantly backed up and protected, and Sungard helps the company test its systems annually.

Deploying disaster recovery plans

The contract began in March 2012. Sungard immediately backed up several of LifeShare's servers plus updated the VMware infrastructure to accommodate applications and data from the servers. A mirror copy of Lifeshare's data systems was replicated in Sungard's northeast data center, which enabled Lifeshare to protect its critical applications while ensuring constant data backup.

After the system was deployed, Lifeshare's IT staff could view real-time data and statistics about the data backup of all of its 12 severs. This was enhanced by an upgrade that almost doubled the network bandwidth capacity. It was a very smooth transition.

Business as usual

With the Sungard's disaster recovery system in place, LifeShare's team can now run its business operationally, which is essential because they have a small IT staff that manages seven blood centers, including the computer systems, desktop solutions, mobile PCs and 800 workstations across the operation, as well as printers. Plus, the IT staff is now free to focus their attention on other important issues and value-added initiatives.

"We continue to see instances that reiterate the importance of a robust disaster recovery system," says Jones. "For example, LifeShare serves as a reference laboratory testing blood for multiple antigens and cataloguing the information. We are one of very few organizations that tracks and utilizes this information worldwide."

"In 2010, an unborn baby in England needed rare blood. We found a matching blood donor in our system based on the testing information we had on file. The donor was in Arkansas on vacation, but then came to our headquarters in Shreveport, donated blood and, within 48 hours, the blood was on its way to England. This vital research information would be in jeopardy without a strong disaster recovery backup system in place," adds Jones.

This story, "Why disaster recovery planning can save lives" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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