Should disastrous winter weather strike, could your business survive?

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Print this page by Jay Atkinson

No sooner did we ring in 2014 than winter walloped the nation.

The first storm of 2014 pummeled the Midwest and Northeast with snow, paralyzing a wide swath of cities and towns.

Days later, high winds and dangerous, below-zero temperatures gripped much of the nation, threatening lives, closing schools and businesses, and canceling thousands of flights at the airport.

Just prior, during Christmas week, a massive ice storm had sent the upper Midwest and northern New England into a tailspin, shuttering businesses and leaving more than half a million customers without power.

While Virginia’s wintry weather conditions may be slightly more favorable than those further north, we certainly get our fair share of harsh weather and cold.

Times like these remind us never to underestimate the power of winter storms and freezing temperatures.

That’s why Virginia’s business leaders should prepare carefully for bad winter weather, especially those events that have the potential to disrupt their business by crippling their IT systems.

Should a winter disaster strike, your employees may lose access to your business’ mission-critical applications (think email, financial software, etc.), databases and customer files.  Could your business survive for hours, or even days, without those?  If your company website goes down, how long can you withstand the consequences?

What many businesses don’t fully recognize is that IT downtime and data loss has the potential to damage not only their revenues but also their reputation and relationships with customers, partners and vendors.  Bouncing back may be long and painful — or even impossible.  One in four businesses forced to close for at least 24 hours following a disaster simply never reopens.

If your business hasn’t planned for a worst-case scenario, now is the time to kick it into high gear.  But how?

Start by creating a business continuity plan —  essentially a playbook that spells out how you’ll stay in business following a disaster.  Broadly, a business continuity plan enables you to restore your operations and communications systematically while helping you minimize the risk of a serious financial loss and a damaged reputation.

As part of that plan, incorporate the steps needed to safeguard your IT infrastructure from disaster, highlighting clear backup and recovery measures.  First, you’ll want to ensure that your data and apps are routinely backed up in a secure, off-site environment (i.e., not in your physical office).  Consider doing this in the cloud, which is faster than other options and offers the most protection at the lowest cost.  Second, develop and implement a disaster recovery plan to prevent data loss in the event your business suffers unexpected downtime.

Here’s a checklist to help you work through this part:

1.    Identify the risks.  List and categorize threats associated with disasters and their likely impact on your IT systems.  While natural disasters are indeed destructive, don’t forget that human error and other man-made disasters can be equally devastating and lead to significant downtime.

2.    Inventory your IT assets.  Which apps and data are most critical to keeping your business up and running?  What is your tolerance for loss of those assets?  The cost of the response should be balanced against your tolerance for system downtime.

3.    Define your goals.  Should disaster strike, how long can your business shut down?  Does it need to recover off-site? Define goals in terms of RPO (Recovery Point Objective, “How much data can we lose?”) and RTO (Recovery Time Objective, “How long can we be down?”).

4.    Develop a plan.  Include “IT Assets Inventory,” data protection procedures and contingency plans, notification/activation schedules, a list of roles and responsibilities, a list of resource requirements and details about training provisions.  A good plan includes maintenance and backup/recovery testing schedules.

5.    Identify a trusted IT partner.  If your IT staff is small, look to an IT solutions provider that can fill in the skills gaps and become an extension of your IT department.  Their expertise and flexibility to monitor your systems around the clock will allow you the peace of mind you need to focus on your core business.

6.    Understand the cloud’s benefits.  The cloud has become the new baseline for safeguarding business IT infrastructure.  Cloud technologies have made backup and disaster recovery vastly faster, easier and cheaper.  Ask your IT partner to help you explore the options.

7.    Implement the plan.  If the company’s top decision makers understand fully the consequences of system disruptions, you can win their support and funding for contingency policies.

8.    Test the plan.  Play devil’s advocate by coming up with all the scenarios that might cause your business continuity plan to fail.  Should an actual failure occur, a quick recovery will be much more likely because you have taken time to study and measure the possible threats and risks to your business and plotted a course of action.

When bad wintry weather threatens to wallop your business, you’ll be prepared and poised to recover rapidly.  Your new business continuity plan will enable you to minimize the havoc wreaked upon your IT system during a disaster and help spare your company from ruinous financial loss brought on by downtime and lost data.

Jay Atkinson is the CEO and owner of the McLean-based AIS Network, which is the premier cloud hosting provider for the Commonwealth of Virginia and numerous commercial enterprises throughout North America. Atkinson, who lives in Richmond, can be reached at jay.atkinson@aisn.net.

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