Five DR tips to cope with a pandemic

In light of the H1N1 outbreak, vendors offer advice on how companies can move to implement disaster recovery and keep business up and running.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor

The H1N1 virus outbreak has forced companies to rethink their disaster readiness strategies, with some having to close offices and send workers home.

Like the bird flu pandemic two years ago and the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak before it, the need for technology to help ensure business continuity is at the forefront of companies' agendas.

ZDNet Asia spoke to several communications vendors, to find out ways companies can better prepare and cope with the onset of a serious pandemic.

1. Assess capacity of current architecture to support remote workers.
According to Vladimir Yordanov, APAC technology director at F5 Networks, most organizations already have some measure of remote access available.

"Mobile workers are not uncommon within many organizations... Flexible communications infrastructures are already in place" for many companies, but it is a matter of being able to scale up to address the increased needs due to a disaster, said Yordanov.

He said companies need to prepare for the spike in traffic from remote workers that is expected in the event of a crisis. Companies should assess factors affecting their network's readiness, such as the physical distance between data centers, which will affect network latency.

Companies should also take into account the time needed for data replication to a redundant data center, as well as time needed to activate it to handle all the organization's users, applications and data transitions, said Yordanov.

2. Enable remote infrastructure.
Yordanov said companies should also enable information to be synchronized and consistent across their data sources. This will allow users to access up-to-date information so business can continue uninterrupted, he said.

Ensure applications have access to the right data, which must be accessible remotely by any device, such as a kiosk or home computer, across multiple OSes.

Yordanov added that companies should have a "well-known and public" URL for remote access to these apps, and to have a backup VPN (virtual private network) appliance available in a remote data center.

Outsourcing a company's network to a managed services provider will also help lift the burden off the company in time of crisis, he said.

3. Enable mobile access.
Natasha Kwan, general manager, Asia, mobile communications business, Microsoft, said remote workers' mobile access should be an extension of their larger "screen"--the desktop. Companies implementing instant messaging (IM) services can connect devices over their IM platform to keep communication constant, she said.

Kwan said: "Enabling a mobile workforce does not require a complicated setup." She said Web services will help SMBs (small and midsize businesses) get mobile quickly, and are also within reach of smaller budgets, since cloud services are often charged on a unit basis such as per-user, per-month.

F5 Networks' Yordanov said including Web services as part of a company's software strategy will help SMBs build capability easily for the future, with the ability to tap on compute power and quality applications easily.

4. Have the right security protocols in place.
Edgar Dias, leader, data portfolio, Asia, Middle East and Africa at Nortel, said security policies tend to be less strongly enforced outside a company's network, compared to the internal network. This brings problems when remote workers connect into the network from outside.

Dias recommended companies make security easier for workers on the go. He said there are portable, USB-stick offerings available which will help secure the connection once the user is connected into the corporate network.

Companies should also define policies around which applications are permitted access to data, he added.

F5 Networks' Yordanov too said system administrators should define security policies based on who the user is, and which devices are permitted.

He noted that security based on IPSec VPN technology has been "costly and complex" to maintain, proving "prohibitive for many enterprises".

SSL VPNs (secure socket layer virtual private networks), on the other hand, allow remote workers secure access through standard Web browser technology, without IPSec's requirements like client software installation and configuration, said Yordanov.

5. Make long-term plans for the future.
Telstra International's senior vice president, Asia, Greg Russell, said ensuring the right infrastructure should be an ongoing business concern for companies, rather than on a "problem-solving" basis.

"The most important thing is to ensure the user experience is uninterrupted," he said.

He noted that companies should plan for user adaptation to new technology, to help them ease into unified communications setups such as video conferencing and IM.

"Some cultural adaptation is needed, especially when [unified communications] replaces regular face-to-face interaction," he said.

Yordanov offered some tips on building out redundancy: Distribute infrastructure over a large geographical area so that the effect of the pandemic or disaster is mitigated. Geographical separation is also beneficial because it takes time for the pandemic to spread, which gives additional time for organizations to react, he said.

Companies should also maintain multiple ISP connectivity to ensure redundancy, traffic management and redirection across data centers, to ensure features such as data replication, application acceleration and availability work in times of crisis, said Yordanov.

According to Yordanov, a redundant center will take between six to 18 months to plan, build and deploy.

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