Disaster planning. The simplest things can be the most important

What a mess, to even consider the ramifications of having your data center equipment be underwater or completely cut off from power and or networking. For many it’s almost too much to consider. The very fact that a situation like Hurricane Sandy could occur is the reason why you can’t bury your head in the sand about disaster planning.

You may not get the budget or buy-in to create a real business continuity plan, but if you can’t get one, then a communication plan might just be the best return on investment for the time and cost.

It seems simple, but communications is the single most critical capability post disaster. If your customers don’t hear from you, they assume you’re either out of business, or at a minimum unlikely to keep near term commitments. As anyone calling a customer support center will tell you, the black hole of “not knowing” is worse than being told, “it might be another day.” With a timeline the customer can react and plan, without it, she is at the whim of her vendor, which is now making her look bad with her customers.

Setting up the plan

Lobby at Verizon office at 140 West Street, New York post-Sandy

The reality is that almost any business will eventually recover their systems; the problem lies with whether or not they’ll have any customers to recover them for. Here are few simple things to make sure that key employees and leaders know what to do in the first hours after a disaster:

  • Have a phone line with regularly updated information for all employees, with a tree for updates, or information that might be critical to sub groups.
  • Create a website that is used only for updates.Be sure to host your recovery site with a hoster who is out of your area.
  • Get a conference line(s) that are available for teams to jump on whenever they need to discuss specific activities with other members of the recovery team.
  • Provide a location for meetings with at least two backup alternatives in case the primary isn’t an option. This could be someone’s home, some rental space or a conference room at a local hotel.
  • Distribute pagers and or satellite phones for a few key staff. This can be especially important if the cell systems have been impacted by the disaster.

The tools of the plan

Email: Create a mirror of your email environment with a third party (if you haven’t already outsourced it to Google or Microsoft, etc.). This mirror doesn’t have to have all the data, it just has to have key names, addresses, and distribution lists. Your email should appear to be coming from the same domain as your primary email, and it should have the following:

  • Mirror email accounts for a team of leaders and functional team members that are tasked with responding after a disaster;
  • Addresses for all your customer contacts;
  • Addresses for your key suppliers; and
  • Distribution lists for customers and employees.

It really isn’t hard to make the above happen. Your email admin can find a third-party provider and setup a mirror but inactive environment with regular synchronization of the required information. This mirror environment allows you at low cost to have a “known and trusted” communications tool up and active the minute your primary systems are down.

Phones: Like the email solution, you should have a backup voice service such as Centrex. This voice service will have all the same contact information that your email solution should have, plus more depending on special contact details for recovery teams and key suppliers, etc.

Social media: If you’ve been reading the news lately, you‘ve seen or heard information on the importance of your CEO participating in social media (Twitter, Google+, Facebook, Quora, etc). A website with blogs and or a dashboard with updates can also be very useful. After a disaster your ability to communicate updates and answer questions in real time from customers, analysts, partners etc. is a huge benefit. The more information you make available the more comfortable your community will be and the more patience they will show you during the recovery period.

Justifying the communications efforts

During the disaster and the recovery these efforts will let you tell the customer know what’s going on. You can provide comfort to concerned families, partners and employees. Simple messages indicating what you’re doing, what your update schedule will be and how company representatives can be reached are all key objectives of the communications effort.

Of course, each communication tool has its advantages and disadvantages. I don’t recommend social media as the primary communication solution in lieu of email and phones. You still need the ability to provide targeted information to your customers and partners that would go way beyond the hit and miss capabilities of social media. Each of the tools listed above have capabilities that make them more suited for certain types of communication requirements.

In the case of social media the updates are really general and meant to satisfy the casual observer, while also updating those who do follow your tweets, LinkedIn updates, and Facebook posts closely. However, you shouldn’t consider it a substitute for direct communication with customers/partners via phone or email.

While these efforts aren’t an alternative to a real business continuity effort, like a weight loss plan or cleaning out the garage, taking small but measurable steps is often the key to making “something” happen. Each of the objectives listed above are relatively inexpensive and very easy to explain or justify to your leadership. At a minimum it will demonstrate that you’re taking the lead on “doing something” rather than ignoring the issue and blaming corporate inertia. You’ll certainly be doing your company a huge favor by ensuring that they don’t appear to disappear from the face of the earth when a disaster occurs.

Mark Thiele is executive VP of Data Center Tech at Switch, the operator of the SuperNAP data center in Las Vegas. Thiele blogs at SwitchScribe and at Data Center Pulse, where is also president and founder. .He can be found on Twitter at @mthiele10.