When IT disasters really strike

You can't be blamed for acts of God. At least, not if you've got a robust disaster recovery plan in place

A failed project may feel like a disaster, but it’s nothing compared to what a hurricane, earthquake, fire, or man-made calamity can do to your business. As an IT pro, you’ll be expected both to protect your organization’s technology assets and help it recover from the event as soon as possible. Here’s how to prepare and prioritize:

Priority #1: People. “It’s a cliché, but it’s true: Your employees are your most vital asset,” says John Laye, author of Avoiding Disaster: How to Keep Your Business Going When Catastrophe Strikes (John Wiley & Sons, 2002). That means knowing where your employees are and how to reach them quickly. Hurricane Katrina knocked out cell towers, making mobile phones useless, so consider alternative methods such as long-range walkie-talkies. Smart companies also distribute emergency guidebooks and train employees so people know what to do without waiting for instructions.

Priority #2: Data. “You can replace new hardware servers, communications wires, and even buildings, but you can’t go out and buy new data,” notes Sami Akbay, senior director of marketing for GoldenGate Software, a San Francisco firm that provides disaster recovery services for Fortune 500 companies. Daily backups and off-site storage are a good start, but backup sets must also be safe and accessible -- especially when roads are washed out and airports are closed. Test the backups by periodically restoring them; if the data is corrupt, you’ll want to know that before the tsunami hits.

Priority #3: Software. Identify the applications most vital to getting the business back up -- such as HR, payroll, or e-mail -- and give them top priority, says Roy Jackson, vice president of IT consulting for CAS Severn in Laurel, Md. Make sure more than one staffer can operate them if needed. “We find in many organizations that only a single administrator knows how to start, stop, or run a critical application,” he says. If that person is unavailable, your organization could be dead in the water.

Priority #4: Hardware. If your datacenter is wiped out, you’ll need another -- and fast. Companies like Agility Recovery Systems and SunGard Availability Services can have replacement systems available within a few hours. If you’re in a business where timely transactions are critical, you’ll need a duplicate datacenter on “hot standby” ready to take over when the first one fails.

Priority #5: Facilities. Having a backup datacenter or storage facility only 50 miles away won’t do you any good if you suffer a Katrina-sized disaster. “Remember to have enough geographic distance between your primary and secondary environments,” advises GoldenGate’s Akbay. “Ideally it would be in another state entirely.”

But none of this advice will do you any good unless your staff is trained and ready to go when the worst happens. The key is making the disaster a “rehearsed event,” Laye says. “If you’re prepared and your management team considers it a rehearsed event, then it doesn’t have to be a catastrophe.”