IT plans for a pandemic

Gartner Inc. is recommending that businesses complete planning by the second quarter of this year for an influenza pandemic and in particular stock up on supplies that would be needed by data centre workers.

Among the suggestions offered recently by a Gartner analyst at the research firm’s data centre conference in Las Vegas: Store 42 gallons of water per data centre worker — enough for a six-week quarantine — and don’t forget food, medical care, cooking facilities, sanitation issues and electricity.

In a quarantined environment, “you are not going anywhere,” said Gartner analyst Ken McGee. As well as ensuring that their own operations continue during such a pandemic, IT managers should also review the contingency plans of their vendors, he said. Vendor contracts should include service guarantees and “extraordinarily harsh terms if that vendor does not come through,” said McGee.

Among those in the audience during McGee’s presentation was John Stingl, the chief technology officer of Russell Investment Group. During the presentation, McGee said later, he sent a note on his handheld to his administrative assistant to arrange a meeting back at his Tacoma, Wash.-based office about his company’s pandemic-specific planning.

Stingl said his company has a good disaster recovery and business continuity plan. But after hearing McGee’s stark warning, he said he wants to know more about his firm’s plans for a pandemic.

“It was an eye-opener,” Stingl said of the presentation. McGee did not tell attendees that a pandemic is in the offing. But pandemics are regular occurrences in history, and while it is unknown whether avian flu will explode into global pandemic, the number of deaths related to it are creeping up, and more appear possible as the disease spreads. “The point is, the degree of transmission seems to be increasing from human to human,” McGee said.

Brad Kowal, associate director of the data centre at Shands HealthCare in Gainesville, Fla., said his medical centre has had its hands full dealing with business continuity planning aimed at protecting against hurricanes. “And then you throw this in [and are told to] get it done by the second quarter. It’s literally stun and shock for me,” he said.

McGee said pandemic planning costs should total no more than five per cent of an IT budget and stressed that the burden shouldn’t be absorbed by the IT budget alone. It should be shared throughout a company, he added.

Among the things firms should do, McGee said, is decide whether they intend to keep their data centres operating during a pandemic. Then, if they plan to keep operations going, consider planning for up to a 12-week quarantine.

Gartner recommends that companies conduct educational sessions with employees so that they know how to prepare their family households. In the enterprise, one person should be designated for planning, and business continuity plans will have to be adapted for a pandemic. IT should oversee installation of broadband services to its most critical employees but also assume that there may be failures in public networks.

One attendee, who said he works at a Fortune 100 insurance company and requested anonymity, said his company has taken pandemic planning seriously. “We have almost 30,000 employees, and fully a third of them in the next six months will be able to work remotely,” he said.

At McGee’s presentation, a survey asked attendees whether they believe a bird flu pandemic will take place in three years. Fifty-eight per cent said “yes,” 25 per cent “no,” and 17 per cent were not sure.

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