What you will learn in this tip: Recent flood disasters in New England, Central Europe, Brazil and Australia are reminders that this type of disaster poses a clear and present threat
to businesses regardless of geography or boundaries. This tip tackles the subject of disaster preparedness and recovery specifically pertaining to floods.
Floods can affect large areas, causing various degrees of damage and disruption, ranging from total destruction of buildings to the loss of access to certain areas. This can affect business in many ways, including an interruption of all business processes, a broken supply chain, limited access to facilities and isolation of key staff. While devastating floods cannot be prevented, planning around them from an IT disaster recovery planning perspective can help mitigate their impact on a business.
Location is everything
Logic dictates that you would not necessarily build a data center on the banks of the Mississippi River but we must keep in mind that flooding can happen almost anywhere, including the Arizona desert during violent thunderstorms in the summer months. Disaster recovery planners should start with the selection of an appropriate location for a data center, which once again, reinforces the point that disaster preparedness should never be an afterthought. For example, selecting an upper floor over a ground floor installation when possible is usually a good idea. Backup power generators with ample above-ground fuel reserves must also be considered because power is often affected when flooding occurs either due to damage to the distribution system or purposely turned off by authorities for safety reasons.
With new data center cooling technology such as in-rack or in-row cooling, more data centers are being built on a concrete slab without using a traditional raised floor. While a raised floor is not necessary to distribute cold air with these new cooling methods, it might be helpful to still have one in place to help prevent damage from minor flooding by keeping the IT equipment 18 inches, 24 inches or even 36 inches off the ground.
Virtualization and replication for flood disaster management
For various reasons, some companies choose to keep their IT environment close to their workers and place of business. While this may be considered a questionable business decision in areas prone to flooding, this is not much different than keeping your manufacturing equipment, warehouse, call center or retail outlet in the same area; you should not systematically have to cease all business activity and move your company because you are located in a potential disaster area. In other words, some areas may be appropriate for office facilities but not for data centers.
Server virtualization and data replication are not specifically geared towards flood-caused disasters, but these technologies offer a cost-effective, rapid recovery strategy that can meet tight recovery time objectives (RTOs) and recovery point objectives (RPOs). There are two characteristics floods have that differentiate them from other disasters: They are to some degree predictable and, generally speaking, have a temporary impact on the affected areas. This predictability gives you enough time to temporarily move IT processing to another locale without having to physically move systems or maintain a duplicate IT environment. It also enables the IT load to be failed back to its original location following the cleanup effort. Server virtualization using Citrix XenServer, Microsoft Hyper-V or VMware, doubled with data replication such as NetApp SnapMirror technology, or VMware Site Recovery Manager, are more and more frequently implemented for this purpose.
Disaster recovery services
For those companies that have no budget towards owning and maintaining a disaster recovery IT environment, companies like IBM Corp. or SunGard provide temporary space, equipment as well as recovery services based on a monthly subscription. These disaster recovery services can be based on the recovery of an environment from backup media to supplied IT systems or it can be combined with the server virtualization and data replication components mentioned earlier. Other companies such as Agility Recovery Solutions and Rentsys Recovery Services Inc. can deploy preconfigured mobile recovery units where applications and data can be restored. These service providers offer an alternative by coming closer to your workforce which, depending on the extent of the flooding, might be more convenient than moving your workforce.
Collocation data center and the cloud
In some areas flooding is far too unpredictable in frequency and disruptive to a point where it makes sense to permanently host the entire IT environment elsewhere. Very large corporations with critical IT infrastructures can afford to build and operate a data center in a low-risk area, but for a majority of companies, especially small- to-medium-sized businesses (SMBs), this is a capital expenditure that they often cannot afford even though their IT may be just as critical to them. The solution for cost-effective data centers is to move the IT processing to a collocation data center, which offers an operational cost alternative in the form of a service. Specialized or custom applications can remain under the support and management of the company's IT staff while the hardware is managed by the collocation service provider. For the more generic or out-of-the-box applications such as email, CRM and even file services, moving to a cloud provider can increase the availability of the application to a level that a company could not have previously provided with their own IT infrastructure.
As mentioned earlier, location or site selection for an IT environment should be among the first planning considerations. That said, it is possible that physical access to the workplace be affected during a flood thus preventing workers from accessing a secure IT environment that was carefully built at a higher elevation away from flood waters. Technologies such as Citrix, VMware View and Window Virtual Desktop enable users to access familiar applications via what is called a virtual desktop from any PC using a Web browser. This can be used as an alternative to VPN access, which may be disrupted during a disaster.This gives users much-needed mobility during disruptive events such as floods that typically lead to temporary relocation of the workforce to an alternate site. Web-based virtual desktops provide an easy-to-maintain access point requiring minimal hardware deployment in anticipation of a flood, which saves both time and money.
Like other natural disasters, floods can destroy data centers and even entire buildings, but they're more likely to cause the IT environment to become inaccessible for some period of time. By using some or a combination of the technologies discussed in this article, companies can quickly recover from flood disasters, or in some cases, harden their IT environment to a point where they can shift the recovery effort away from IT and focus on the disrupted lives of their employees and families.
About this author: Pierre Dorion is the data center practice director and a senior consultant with Long View Systems Inc. in Phoenix, Ariz., specializing in the areas of business continuity and DR planning services and corporate data protection.
This was first published in July 2010