Contradictions galore in business continuity planning

Business users have conflicting views on their company’s ability to access critical information after a disaster or disruption.

That’s the main finding of a recent survey commissioned by SunGard Availability Services, a Wayne, PA-based vendor of information availability services.

The survey solicited feedback from senior business executives, not IT leaders, at U.S.-based Fortune 1000 companies.

Eighty per cent said it was more important to their organizations to have an information infrastructure that was always available rather than being able to recover from a business disruption.

What this reveals is that business users don’t want to be in a position where they have to recover from an outage to begin with – they would rather have continuous access to information, says Dave Palermo, vice-president of marketing at SunGard. The survey also challenges organizations to rethink their attitudes towards disruptions and disasters.

About two-thirds of respondents gave their companies a B grade when assessing their organization’s ability to access critical information after a disaster. However, 61 per cent said their company experienced an unplanned disruption of technology services in the past year, a 54 per cent increase over last year’s findings.

Is there a difference between a disaster and an unplanned disruption?

“All systems and information are not created equal,” says Palermo. A short-term disruption can be a “disaster” for say, a brokerage firm or a hospital.

Formal disaster recovery plans (DRP) typically focus on recovery within in a 24-48 hour recovery window from large-scale disasters. But unplanned disruptions are increasing, says Palermo. Outages due to viruses, for example, increased from 22 per cent in last year’s findings to 38 per cent this year, as did outages due to power failures, increasing from 33 to 41 per cent.

That’s why SunGard has introduced the concept of continuous availability, he says. Be it a disaster or unplanned disruption, the business impact can be the same. But business users treat them differently, giving themselves B grades for disaster preparedness without considering the reality of frequent, unplanned disruptions.

Moreover, only about 50 per cent of Fortune 1000 companies have formal DRPs, despite the business failures that made headlines in the wake of 9/11, the northeastern blackout and hurricane Katrina, says Palermo.

“Companies tend to plan for the last disaster. After 9/11, workgroup seats were the big thing. After the blackout, power was the big thing,” he says. “Viruses are probably the next frontier, due to the high number of outages.”

While Canada has not suffered disasters on the same scale as the U.S., reminders of nature’s wrath have come in the form of ice storms, SARS, and blackouts in recent years.

Nevertheless, only about 30 per cent of Ontario businesses have a full-blown business continuity plans in place, according to a 2004 survey commissioned by Toronto-based Fusepoint Managed Services and Mississauga-based Agility Recovery Solutions.

Although the vast majority of respondents acknowledged an obligation to have a sound business continuity plan, nearly half agreed that costs and lack of internal resources limit their ability to get a formal plan in place.

“Canada is behind the curve compared with the U.S. Clearly, there’s still a lack of understanding of just how important it is to spend money on disaster preparedness initiatives,” says Carmi Levy, senior research analyst at Info-Tech, a London, Ont.-based research consultancy.

Levy acknowledges that Canada’s largely SME business landscape plays a role. “SMEs are less likely to be DRP-savvy. But just because you’re a mid-sized organization, it does not mean you’re less liable to business failure in the event of an outage,” he says.

So do surveys make a difference in persuading companies to invest in business continuity, when disasters in the news don’t?

Says Levy: “Let’s face it, for organizations that whine and complain about costs, nothing is going to teach them that lesson until they suffer a loss themselves. Unfortunately, it might be too late by then.”

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