As Hurricane Earl looms, tips for battening down IT operations

Experts say IT execs must prepare quickly for what NOAA says could be the most active hurricane season ever

Hurricane Earl today continues to threaten the east coast of the U.S. in the midst of what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts will be an unusually active hurricane season .

As if on cue, the massive Hurricane Earl is followed closely in the Atlantic Ocean by tropical storms Fiona and Gaston, which could mean major problems for IT operations in their paths.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Hurricane Earl may test telecommuting workers. | Discover the top-rated IT products as rated by the InfoWorld Test Center. | Stay abreast of key Microsoft technologies in our Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]

A NOAA spokeswoman said that hurricane activity this year could rival 2005, which is the most active year on record. She specifically cited the presence of the La Nina phenomenon , which the NOAA describes as as cooler than normal sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. La Nina causes lower wind shear in the Atlantic Basin, allowing storm clouds to grow and organize there.

"Our hurricane forecaster has said we're in an active hurricane era, and this year's forecast was unusually high," the spokeswoman said.

The NOAA is predicting that the Atlantic basin will see 14 to 20 named storms (with top winds of 39 mph or higher). Those will likely include eight to 12 Hurricanes (with top winds of 74 mph or higher), of which four to six would be ranked as Category 3, 4 or 5 storms (with winds of at least 111 mph).

With the peak hurricane season between late August and October, IT managers should now be in the midst of crossing off check lists to ensure that their company's business continuity and disaster recovery plans are in place, experts say.

The need to keep data centers and the applications they support up and running constantly has become more and more important over the past five years because of an increasing reliance on automation, said Damian Walch, director in Deloitte & Touche's Technology Risk practice. As time goes on, the ability to run businesses manually is diminishing, he added.

Meanwhile, the current economic downturn has caused many businesses to cut back on disaster recovery and business continuity support, putting IT systems at even more risk when a major storm hits, Walch said.

"What I'm seeing out there are a lot of companies that have put their business continuity or disaster recovery programs on hold or scaled back over the last 12 months," he said, which is leading IT operations to "fall back on bad habits."

As budgets are cut, he noted, companies are decreasing investments in alternate data recovery sites, cutting back staff responsible for disaster recovery and business continuity, maintaining insufficient capacity on servers and storage and neglecting to update plans and procedures, he said

"Not only do you have more dependence on (automated) systems, but you now also fewer people to run them, so you don't have the geographic diversity you once had, and therefore your risks have increased," Walch added.

Annie Searle, the principal of Annie Searle & Associates, an independent consulting and research firm, said one of the most important things businesses can do to prepare for an impending hurricane is to ensure that designated disaster recovery/business continuity staffers are prepared to activate emergency response plans.

"Make clear your evacuation procedures and triggers. Make your [telephone] bridge lines live in order to be able to hold conference calls between [remote sites], for example," she said.

Searle previously headed up the crisis management team at Washington Mutual Bank for six years, overseeing hurricane preparations for facilities in Florida and on the Gulf Coast.

She suggested that the emergence of Web 2.0 technologies can be a significant help to IT workers during an emergency. For instance, social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are often the best means of wireless communication when phone lines go out. IT managers should designate one of the social media sites to serve as a bulletin board for employees, she added.

Walch and Searle said it's critical that IT managers take some key steps long before a major storm arrives. They include:

  • Update contact lists with phone numbers and email addresses of vendors, key workers and executives.
  • Confirm which are your critical applications and establish the recovery point objectives for each.
  • Notify key employees of their assignments in case a primary location goes offline due to the storm.
  • Take snapshots of server configurations, and ensure that bare metal restores can be performed at alternate disaster recovery sites.
  • Notify critical business units by email what steps have been taken to ensure that their processes will remain up in case of an outage in primary facilities.
  • Consider having manual procedures in place to continue business functions in case of an extended data center disruption.

In addition, IT managers should make sure that diesel generators are topped off with fuel; fill reserve fuel tanks; cross-map key business processes to ensure that managers know the tasks of each facility; and let less critical business units know that their applications or systems may not be available for a time, they said.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His email address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

Read more about business continuity in Computerworld's Business Continuity Topic Center.

This story, "As Hurricane Earl looms, tips for battening down IT operations" was originally published by Computerworld .

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