Keeping ahead of the Avian Flu

When a worker with SARS-like symptoms kept going to work during the SARS scare in 2003, HP Canada’s Markham, Ont. office was forced to send nearly 200 workers into isolation. With talk of a possible Avian Flu pandemic in the headlines, companies would be wise to consider how IT can help keep a business operating in a quarantine situation, some observers say.

If the Avian Flu does morph into a pandemic, the impact will be widespread. A recent U.S. government study said a pandemic would likely attack about 30 per cent of the U.S. population, and about 20 per cent of working adults.

“Companies do need to think about it, from the boardroom on down,” said Roberta Witty, an analyst at Gartner Inc. Witty said that business and IT managers have to make plans to deal with a flu outbreak. “I can’t frankly say that anyone is prepared,” she added. “I don’t think anyone has dealt with this kind of issue.”

On the northern side of the border, telecom providers like Telus say the Avian Flu is a top-of-mind issue with its clients. Stan Tyo, vice-president of contact centre solutions with Telus in Toronto, said Telus has had many inquiries from companies, particularly in the financial, retail and manufacturing sectors. “They’re concerned about how they can keep their business alive,” said Tyo.

Tyo said the technology involved is similar to what an organization needs in place to enable home working, since in a quarantine situation that’s likely where employees will be. He added that the old approach of creating a duplicate infrastructure at a recovery site is no longer necessary.

“They can keep their data secure at their facility and just host the network components with one of the carriers,” said Tyo.

Network capacity would be strained if everyone began working from home, so Tyo said companies should identify the key areas of business they need to keep running. For example, the finance department can work offline but the call centre and sales force should probably stay online. “Anything that’s customer-facing, that’s what you want to protect,” said Tyo.

Kas Kasravi, who heads the applied innovation program for EDS in Plano, Tex., said companies should also consider asking for a few volunteers to remain behind in the data centre.

“Just lock the doors, and give them provisions and contact with the people outside,” said Kasravi.

The challenges may seem daunting, but Kasravi said as a technical exercise the preparation for Y2K is a good comparison. In a Y2K failure, a subroutine would fail, bringing down a system, while in a pandemic the person maintaining the system would go down.

“By referring to Y2K and how successfully that event was handled, we should gain confidence that we can handle problems of that nature,” said Kasravi.

As a telecommunications vendor that also employs more than 200 people across Canada, Avaya Canada is both advising clients on business continuity and developing its own plan.

“We’ve been at the receiving end, just like everyone else, of events that are close to home,” said Avaya Canada president Mario Belanger. “We’ve recognized we need to have a very robust plan.”

He added that clients have also been asking Avaya and other vendors about Avaya’s own continuity plans, because despite any internal preparation carried out, it can be tough for business to continue if your key suppliers go down.

Most employees have laptops, and with Avaya’s soft phone and IP technology, Belanger said they could work from home easily.

Many other vendors are also ready with technology to help businesses get ready. Toronto’s Route1 has developed a continuity add-on for its MobiKey product, a USB memory key device that, in conjunction with a hosted subscription service, allows a user to access their work desktop securely.

Called SafeResponse, Route1 president Andrew White said the software includes management tools for IT staff and a new pricing model to reflect the different usage patterns.

Another Toronto company, Fortiva Inc., is also tailoring a version of its hosted e-mail archiving offering for business continuity use.

Noting that 70 per cent of business data exists in e-mail, Fortiva said a hosted offering can ensure employees can access this information from outside the office.

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