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Remote disaster recovery presents new business challenges

With more employees working remotely than ever, natural disasters and other typical DR crises present an entirely new challenge. How can businesses tackle this new set of risks?

During this the past year, organizations have shifted focus quickly toward remote work. This trend was already under way in recent years for many companies, but the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing requirements have likely sped up adoption. As more organizations go remote, challenges with remote disaster recovery, in particular, have become apparent.

Remote work has somewhat become the rule rather than the exception, forcing businesses to rethink how they define and handle IT issues, especially natural disaster recovery planning. For example, rather than worrying about a few central facilities, organizations now need to be concerned about power and connectivity in hundreds or thousands of individual locations where employees work remotely. Any of these sites may be under threat from wildfire, hurricanes, tornadoes or any of a range of other natural disasters. In the middle of a global pandemic, any new crisis means multiple threats are happening simultaneously.

Daniel Kennedy, research director for information security and networking at 451 Research, cited his own experience working from home in northern New Jersey. When a hurricane knocked out power for four days to most nearby residences, Kennedy was fortunate to have a connection to a nonprofit that still had power, so that location became his own backup site. However, when outages are caused by natural disasters, most people have no alternative than to simply hunker down and wait it out. Companies, Kennedy said, need to think about helping remote workers strengthen their telecom connections and, perhaps, find alternate ways to enhance resiliency.

Incorporate remote disaster recovery into a plan

Shiva Ramani, CEO at global operations and technology services provider IOpex Technologies, said one path to resilience may be the rollout of 5G services, which could serve as a backup or supplement to regular Wi-Fi for the remote workforce.

No matter what action organizations take, they must incorporate those changes in a documented recovery plan.

Organizations now need to be concerned about power and connectivity in hundreds or thousands of individual locations where employees work remotely.

A prerequisite for considering the challenges of creating a remote disaster recovery plan is to develop a fuller understanding of an organization's risk environment and try to foresee potential dangers, explained Forrester Research analyst Naveen Chhabra. "Only one company in the Fortune 50 saw a global pandemic as a real possibility and had a plan for it," he said. While for many people it seemed highly unlikely, the next "highly unlikely" event is anyone's guess, Chhabra said.

Right now, according to Chhabra, many of the most likely risks stem directly from the workforce being remote. However, there are also risks associated with people not having regular access to systems and established processes. Having some understanding of all risks and "being aware that change is the only constant" is vital to framing a remote disaster recovery plan, Chhabra said.

Speaking at the 2020 Gartner IT Infrastructure, Operations and Cloud Strategies Conference, Jerry Rozeman, a senior research director, warned that many companies still suffer from "it won't happen here" syndrome. He recommended organizations start at an even more fundamental level with a business impact analysis (BIA). Conducting a BIA can help show not only where things aren't working, but what different scenarios mean for the business. The company can then use this information to sort out which of the competing sets of problems should get attention first.

Bear in mind, too, Rozeman said, that ownership of DR can be passed between the different areas of a business. Gartner surveys have shown that businesses often assume DR is strictly an IT problem, while IT often assumes the business owns, or at least shares ownership of, DR. Given that reality, it seems likely that disaster recovery for remote workers could easily fall through the cracks.

Addressing IT and the post-coronavirus world at the same event, David Cappuccio, Gartner vice president and distinguished analyst, said the past year has created a revolution: Work is no longer the place you go; it is the thing you do. He said companies need to think about restructuring around that reality, focusing on critical skills over critical roles, and that they should expect the unexpected.

Cappuccio cited the experience of a client that faced an unusual disaster recovery situation when it let a vendor come in to update software at both of its data centers. Then, the vendor's staff tested positive for COVID-19. Because everyone at both data centers had potentially been exposed, there was literally no one left to tweak software or handle other on-site problems.

Even in a year that has surprised almost everyone, organizations must gauge all potential risks and set priorities. Chhabra said that even in a work-from-home scenario, those thinking about DR must recognize that not all risks have the same consequences or the same likelihood of occurring. However, someone must make sure to go through those thought processes with this new style of work in mind.

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