The recent power cuts in London and North America highlight IT chiefs' responsibility to ensure there is a continuous electricity supply for their companies, says Jim Birtles.
The recent electricity blackouts in London and New York have caused many companies to revisit their business continuity strategies.
Ensuring an uninterruptible power supply is an essential part of any business continuity plan as virtually all core business functions rely on electricity. It is a resource IT managers, in particular, should be concerned with.
Most organisations that have factored electricity into their risk assessments place responsibility for ensuring supply with the IT department. And companies that have not planned for an electricity outage will inevitably turn to their IT people in the event of a power cut.
Large companies, ISPs and banks are, on the whole, ready for power cuts, with well-maintained generators in place. However, 30% to 40% of UK companies are living like ostriches, head in the sand, ignoring the problem.
Generally, the companies that have made no provision to deal with electricity cuts are SMEs. As a rule, the bigger the business is, the better its business continuity strategy.
Many companies assume that electricity cuts such as we have seen in recent weeks are freak happenings, but smaller-scale power cuts are commonplace. Most weeks in London there is a power outage somewhere.
Electricity has always been prone to failure but in the age of integrated IT and e-commerce, dependence on it has increased and the potential damage a substantial outage could cause is huge.
Owing to the backlog effect, it takes 10 times as long to recover from an outage as the length of the outage itself. But there are things IT managers can do to limit the danger.
Have a look around your computer room and talk to your suppliers. Ensure there is no potential for overload in the circuitry by asking the company that controls your power supply what the risks are. This will give you a more realistic view of what the potential issues could be.
Identify equipment that could be prone to failure and pinpoint systems that are of critical importance to the business. These must be your priority in any business continuity plan.
Now think through what you may need in terms of back-up in the event of an electricity failure. It may be as simple as hiring or buying a generator to power these vital machines. A small generator or a battery-based uninterruptable power supply system could cost less than £1,000, could be stored easily and could see a small firm through a power cut.
If you need something more substantial and you are located on a business park or among local businesses facing the same issue, you could all go in together to buy a larger generator.
Also, make sure you regularly test your generator or battery pack - I know of a bank that was let down by a generator simply because it had not been used for years and when it was needed it seized up.
Finally, once you have thought through your electricity continuity strategy, identified your options and how much they will cost, approach senior managers with your thoughts so the issue is raised at executive level. If the bosses decide to do nothing and are prepared to live with the risk, fine. At least you have made them aware of the risks.
Electricity has become such a basic commodity that we assume we have a right to a guaranteed supply. But that is not always the case, and without electricity the IT function cannot operate. It is time for organisations that have not thought about this to shine some light on the subject rather than staying in the dark.
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Jim Birtles is principal at Total Continuity