CIOs must plan for bird-flu now

The H5N1 influenza virus, which originated in Asia, could hit Canada this fall or even earlier, potentially causing an epidemic. If the avian flu does hit big time, will your IT department be ready?

Preparing the enterprise’s IT operations for an avian flu outbreak requires long-term planning, but surveys show that not enough IT executives are planning far enough ahead.

Brian Miller, president of the Disaster Recovery Institute of Canada, says it is important to identify key personnel who are vital in keeping the business running. This can be done by performing specific business-impact analysis for pandemic planning to spot employees who perform vital functions. The next step is to find ways of keeping those key people at home and able to continue delivering services throughout the course of the outbreak.

Such planning is essential, according to Gartner, which has published a report called “Enterprises should take the widespread agreement on the strong likelihood of a pandemic as a signal to take immediate action,” says Ken McGee, the Gartner analyst who wrote the report. “By mid-2006, have in place completed pandemic/IT response plans.”

For many companies, VPNs are the mainstay for their disaster plans. “It’s the lynchpin of our remote access,” says Paul Beaudry, director of technical services for Winnipeg-based JRI, the largest agribusiness company in Canada.

The company has dual Aventail SSL VPN gateways, installed at its headquarters, that support 800 employees and about 25 work-at-home employees. But in the event of a flu epidemic, the latter number would rise drastically, and the company would buy more VPN licenses and tee up more applications.

The entire IT staff of 15 has been trained to increase the number of applications available through the gateway and to increase the resources that employees are authorized to reach over the VPN, says Beaudry. So even if some of the IT staff are out of commission, someone will be able to set up the VPN for those able to work from home.

Still, with all the planning in the world, there is only so much IT executives can do, Beaudry notes. “You’ve got a human fear factor, and you may have people reacting in a way you couldn’t predict,” he says. “You may have a quarantine situation and business can be impacted — there’s no question. But you have to keep the business running.”

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