How to survive a hurricane

During a widespread emergency, such as a hurricane, backup hot sites fill up and there is nowhere to go. Experienced data center managers ride out the storm by planning backup for their backup.

Servers and water won't mix, and if you're within an hour of a coastal watershed, solid preparation could make the difference between all right and all wet.

Last year, four hurricanes slammed the Florida coast alone, causing billions of dollars in damage, with nine hurricanes in total hitting the Atlantic basin. Currently, meteorologists are predicting this season to be as bad -- or worse.

Unfortunately, the best laid continuity plans don't always apply to natural disasters, said Dorian J. Cougias, author of a number of disaster recovery books and CEO of Los Altos, Calif.-based consultancy Network Frontiers, who has noticed a disturbing pattern among businesses when it comes to continuity planning.

For example, at a stop in Pittsburgh, a city literally surrounded by rivers, he asked 60 IT execs where their hot sites were housed. Every single one of them said they planned to use the same SunGard backup facility.

"They all had their hot sites in the same facility," Cougias said. "Ninety percent of the backup world sells their facilities [to] overcapacity."

This isn't a problem when there are isolated issues, such as fires that affect single facilities, but when there is a widespread emergency, such as a hurricane, the backup facilities fill up and there is nowhere to go.

"They tell you right in the contract -- it's first come, first served," Cougias said. "It might sound stupid, but you've got to plan a backup for your backup. So where are you really going to go when a regional issue occurs?"

The bottom line is, you're going to have to grab the bull by the horns, and that means making your own plans and preparations to minimize the damage.

  • Conduct walk-throughs of your organization's business continuity plan. Have changes been made since it was last reviewed? Distribute copies to all staff.
  • Encrypt your vital records. Recent glitches in the transport of backup tapes data have been on the rise. In the hectic hours surrounding a hurricane warning, the potential for tape loss may increase.
  • Decide what should be located at the hot site and map system interdependencies -- understand how infrastructure components work together and depend on each other in a remote location. Verify that all data connections are intact and working properly, and test the ability of your secondary team members to work remotely.
  • Verify the operation of the standby generator. Check that its fuel tank is full and that the fuel is uncontaminated. This should be done on a regular basis by the facility managers, but follow up with them.
  • Check in with outside disaster recovery vendors or suppliers; notify them of any changes in your situation or needs.
  • Make sure the building's grounds crew carefully trims all trees so they don't pose a threat to the facility. Ideally, there will be no trees close enough to the building to cause direct damage.
  • Contact your insurance carrier and review your policy. Ensure that copies of updated insurance papers are included in your disaster supplies -- and are stored at your hot site for protection.

    These plans aren't just for data centers in Florida. In a hurricane, flooding affects facilities 50 to 70 miles inland.

    "The upcoming hurricane season has the potential to pack a strong punch, and organizations must take proactive measures to ensure that their businesses remain up and running in the event of a disruption," said Jim Simmons, group CEO of Wayne, Penn.-based SunGard Availability Services. "To do so, organizations must broaden their traditional business continuity strategies."

    For more information:
    Avoid a summer server meltdown

    After riding out the storm, IT pros will need to see what they can salvage. What's the plan for taking what's left and making something of it? Water is the main culprit in a hurricane, and if you don't move on salvage fast, your chances aren't very good for anything left behind.

    "Have you ever seen a computer with water in it? It's not pretty," Cougias said. "I've never seen computer gear really come back after a dousing."

    You can find Cougias' hurricane preparedness handbook here.

    Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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