Using a tabletop exercise for disaster recovery planning

A tabletop exercise provides a practical gut check of procedures to follow should a particular event occur. While a full-scale disaster recovery (DR) test of a call center operation, for example,

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would entail handing off calls to a backup location, a tabletop exercise around the same call center would focus on the nuts and bolts of making the transfer. Who is the primary contact? How do you reach that person? Is the contact information valid? Who is responsible for making the call?

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The procedures behind a company's disaster recovery plan are put to the test during a tabletop exercise. Participants, including the stakeholder departments that put together the DR plan, would test notification (contact lists and call trees), recovery management, tasks and responsibilities and overall communications. It's essentially a check of the critical to-do lists, call trees and planning documents to ensure every scenario has been covered and that information is up to date and correct.

Although tabletop exercises for disaster recovery take a small amount of time and cost nothing more than the salaries of participants, few companies take this step, said Kelly Lipp, CTO at StorServer, a vendor of backup appliances based in Colorado Springs, Colo. "I bet $10 not 10 companies in America do this," said Lipp. "A tabletop exercise is more about business processes than about data in the data room."

While IT certainly would be tasked with restoring data should an outage or failure occur, bringing all data up within a small time window makes no sense, Lipp said. "Everybody in the organization has a different perception about what data and applications are most critical, but someone has to make those decisions." Lipp said.

Who needs a tabletop disaster recovery exercise?

As the IT and communications supervisor for the city of Safford, Ariz., Derek Kruger reviews the city's DR plan each June in advance of the late summer thunderstorms that often wreak havoc on their IT infrastructure. In the review, Kruger tests parts of the IT infrastructure quarterly, mainly to ensure the backup servers are working correctly.

While Kruger probably does more business continuity (BC) planning than most small- to midsized businesses (SMBs), tabletop disaster recovery exercises are not part of the repertoire. "For what it's worth, it's probably a good thing to do, but carving out time is the issue," Kruger said.

However, a tabletop exercise makes sense for an organization that has determined its needs and written a plan and has not yet purchased any hardware, software or services. Running a tabletop exercise after every major disaster recovery or business continuity update can help identify any gaps or overlaps in the plan.

It also can be useful for employees to practice on following proper procedures in a safe setting where mistakes can be learning experiences. "I like to do PowerPoint tabletop exercises that simulate some event," Michael Miora, founder and president of ContingenZ Corp., a business continuity consulting company based in Playa del Rey, Calif. "It focuses people to make decisions, and you want them to make decisions when it's not important."

Miora likens tabletop exercises to his experience in a defensive driving course. By knowing the right moves to make should a certain adverse event occur, an employee will more likely will react with confidence.

During the downturn, Miora has seen a renewed focus on business continuity planning from the SMB community. Since tabletop exercises cost virtually nothing but staff time, companies have the ability to thoroughly plan for the unexpected.

"Enterprise organizations have been there/done that in terms of business continuity, but SMBs are picking up the pace," Miora noted. "They're realizing that if systems go down, they may not be able to recover."

About this author: Matt Bolch (mbolch@mindspring.com) is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who regularly contributes to more than a dozen consumer and trade magazines on a wide range of topics, including technology and general business. 
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This was first published in March 2009

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