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Nov. 28, 2012

Power Outages and Technology 101: What Companies Need to Know

Totowa, N.J.—In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, even the most disaster-ready New Jersey businesses learned that the best laid plans can fall short. With power, Internet connections, cell towers and even those reliable land-line phones out of commission, access to information and communication—vital ingredients for doing business—became all but impossible.

Yet according to Dawn Bernstel, director of customer care for Totowa, N.J.-based Integrated Business Systems (IBS), while some things cannot be controlled, companies can take steps to better prepare themselves for “next time.” In the following Q&A interview, Bernstel provides some practical, technology-related advice for small and mid-size businesses.

In the event of a likely power outage, how can companies prepare their technology infrastructure?

Bernstel: Businesses really need to back up their critical data frequently—not just in anticipation of a power failure—and test the success of these regular backups. That said, if there is time to complete a backup before an expected outage, do it.

It also is important to regularly verify that any uninterruptible power supply (UPS) devices are charging. Whenever possible, shut all hardware down and unplug it an hour or two in advance of losing power, never letting equipment go down “hard.” Servers, especially, are prone to reboot issues if they have not been shut down properly.

What must management and staff take with them when they leave the office?

Bernstel: Be sure to take a copy or copies of the latest data backup off site and store the material in a safe, accessible place. Additionally, each employee should leave the office with hard copies of documents containing vital information they may need if they cannot get back into the office, boot up their laptops or access the Internet. At a bare minimum, this includes a list of staff, client and primary vendor office and cell phone numbers, along with instructions on making contact with management during and immediately after the power crisis. Likewise, provide clients and vendors with a list of emergency numbers for key staff. During Hurricane Sandy, we learned the value of mobile communication when the landlines were down. Even when cell service is spotty, text messages frequently will go through because they are only small packages of data (as opposed to streaming voice).

Once power is restored, is there a “right way” to get technology back up and running?

Bernstel: Bring devices on one at a time, make sure they boot, and watch for warning lights and messages. In many cases hardware will turn on automatically when it senses power. Good technology consultants will work with their clients to create a roadmap of the best order for bringing up switches, firewalls and various devices, including what each looks like and where it is located in the company’s computer room. That is a great document to have on hand, especially if your consultant is unable to respond quickly. One of the smartest things companies can do after an outage is to make sure their UPS devices are working properly. If not, they should purchase high-quality replacements.

How can the hard lessons learned from Sandy help companies refine their IT strategy?

Bernstel: As business gets back to normal, this is a perfect time to examine options for storing and accessing mission-critical data and applications. Among many considerations, being able to function in the event of a long-term power outage—before it happens (again)—is key. Small and mid-size businesses have three main options: housing their own hardware and software on site, storing servers and software off site in a hosted environment, or moving everything to the cloud.

What are the advantages and drawbacks of each option?

Bernstel: In the first, “traditional” option, companies maintain an onsite computer room where they store their servers and have their own, licensed copies of software programs. This is the hardest setup to protect from power and communication outages because companies typically do not control the power supply or connectivity supply to their rented office buildings. In some but not all cases, landlords will allow the installation of a backup generator or lines from multiple communication carriers. Depending on the scope of what needs to be powered, this can become very costly.

In the offsite, hosted option, companies store their servers at a secure remote site with backup power and communications redundancy. This model enables any authorized employee with a PC and Internet connectivity to access applications and data. In the case of an office being inaccessible, key personnel can log on immediately and work from home or a remote office until the company is again up and running. The drawback here is that, without Internet, the host site cannot be reached.

The newest option involves cloud computing, where applications and servers may be hosted in a number of locations in shared environments that are accessed seamlessly over the Internet. This alternative is highly cost effective for smaller companies with 50 or fewer technology users. Again, the drawback here is that, without Internet, the cloud cannot be reached. Additionally, some concerns remain about security in the cloud. Still, these are minimal and likely will be eliminated as this model becomes increasingly established.

Do you have any additional advice?

Bernstel: People respond to challenges differently, and we have seen the spectrum following Hurricane Sandy. Some are patient and roll along with whatever happens. Others think they can control nature, and they expect things to be back to normal 15 minutes after the wind stops blowing. Most of us fall somewhere in between. First, it is important to understand that everyone is working as hard as they can to make things better. Second, it is best to be prepared for the worst. Third, and finally, as we have quickly learned in New Jersey it always makes sense to have a full tank of gas.

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