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Keeping business as usual
Ensuring business continuity: Do you know where your servers are?
September 9, 2005: 3:39 PM EDT
By Owen Thomas, Business 2.0

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NEW YORK (Business 2.0) - On the 10th floor of a New Orleans high-rise, Michael Barnett, crisis manager at DirectNic, is blogging (www.mgno.com) about his co-workers' efforts to keep the Internet service provider online through the hurricane and its aftermath.

Compared with some companies in New Orleans, DirectNic was lucky -- it was on high ground that escaped flooding, had an onsite diesel generator, and maintained a fiber-optic connection to the outside world that was buried deep enough to withstand winds and flooding.

Had Barnett and his colleagues not taken heroic measures to keep DirectNic operating, you might well have noticed, since the company hosts more than 1.1 million domain names, including the infamous SomethingAwful.com and local tourist Web site FrenchQuarter.com. All in all, DirectNic runs an estimated 2 percent of the Internet's Web sites.

Back-up planning

Yet it didn't have a backup hosting plan in place. Sigmund Solares, CEO of DirectNic's parent company, recently told customers in an e-mail that "backup options outside of New Orleans are being implemented as an added precaution," and the company has requested help finding temporary office space for its 55 employees.

With so many customers depending on it, why didn't DirectNic have a backup plan in place?

"You're looking at a data center that runs 2 percent of the Internet," Barnett says. "That's quite a task to back it up. We have backup tapes, but they're all onsite here in New Orleans. We're still in the process of migrating to a new data center."

Barnett says he didn't have a backup plan because operating a second massive data center would essentially double DirectNic's expenses.

But the company's plight highlights an important consideration: With more and more IT functions like Web site hosting being outsourced to companies like DirectNic, it's not enough for your company to have its own emergency plan -- you need to know how all of your service providers plan to respond too.

Where's your data?

Do you know, for example, where all your data centers are located, let alone whether they're on high ground or in a flood zone? How many connections do they have to the Internet, and what could sever those lines? Do they have an onsite generator? How about a spare if that generator blows out?

For bigger companies, planning for "business continuity" -- industry jargon for keeping a business running in an emergency -- is made easier by the resources at hand, like having multiple office locations with space to spare.

In the recent disaster, for example, Hibernia, a large New Orleans-based bank that runs its servers onsite, implemented a continuity plan it had formulated to shift its operations center to Shreveport, La., where it has a large regional office. Servers in Shreveport were already in place, with fresh data backups, so the bank could reassign IT workers to the regional office, rapidly reopen branches closed by the hurricane, and hook up mobile ATMs to dispense cash

The options for smaller companies are much more limited. Business-continuity vendors like Hewlett-Packard (Research), IBM (Research), and SunGard Data Systems (Research) provide comprehensive offerings that include spare servers and office space for displaced IT workers, but contracts for those services often cost millions of dollars, much more than most small businesses can afford.

Be prepared

To prepare for disaster, the first thing small companies should think about is which of their systems are most important to protect. For example, prominent New Orleans law firm Adams & Reese used a service from MessageOne, a disaster-recovery company, that switched e-mail messages over to backup servers after the hurricane struck.

By contrast, SCP Pool, a large wholesaler of swimming-pool supplies based in Covington, La., keeps its entire supply-chain system online, so years ago it arranged an emergency plan with its data-center operator to keep a redundant site in Dallas, and it switched seamlessly after the disaster.

Once you've figured out which systems are most critical for your business to keep functioning through a disaster, you'll have to price out the cost of keeping them online. What are your options if you can't afford a large ISP with multiple data centers? It might prove wise to rent space from two smaller, low-cost ISPs based in different regions, or to back up only your most important services, like e-mail or Web hosting, at another site.

Though some DirectNic customers have complained about a lack of communication from the company, they're lucky their provider has dedicated employees like Barnett, an Army Special Forces veteran who rode out the hurricane in the data center and secured it against trespassers.

"The facility had to stay up," Barnett says, explaining his decision to remain in New Orleans.

But a business-continuity plan shouldn't rely on employees to remain in a dangerous situation. Before the next disaster strikes, think about where your servers are -- and how to protect the data that's most important to your business.

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