Disaster planning, mix-and-match style

How different companies customize their disaster plans

Disaster planning traditionally focuses on three variables: data center replication, building design and backups. Analysts have maintained for years that the most common "disaster" is outright hardware failure because of faulty data center design, for instance, when the "emergency power off" button is hit, either accidentally or on purpose. Yet, for many enterprises throughout the US, the reality is that recovery plans should be customized for whichever type of major disaster is most likely to occur in any given area.

"There are really two kinds of disasters that can affect your data center," says Ken Brill, founder and executive director of The Uptime Institute. "Those that do not affect your data center directly but do affect your region -- when the region recovers, you will recover. Another is a disaster that affects your building directly; you won't recover until you recover the building. One of the most important decisions, but one that is often given little thought, is where to put the data center."

According to Brill, regional considerations such as city location, proximity to the ocean, whether the data center will be near a flood plain and even variables such as whether the data center is near an exterior wall, should all be considered carefully based on the region, not on broad computing guidelines.

"There's a wave of regional events around the world, which started with 9/11 and then the power outage during the summer of 2003 [on the US East Coast], Katrina, and flooding that we see going on around the world and terrorist events," says Roberta J. Witty, an analyst at Gartner, who says disaster recovery budgets should be 8 per cent to 9 per cent of total data center budgets. "Organizations are starting to understand that an event can happen completely outside of your control and you'd better be prepared for it."

To find out how different companies customize their plans, we spoke to data center administrators in several locations around the US, including Florida, Minnesota, California and New York.


One of the primary concerns with earthquakes is prepping the building for both tremors and catastrophic events. Lucasfilm, located north of San Francisco in California, anchors each building to the ground -- including video production facilities and the main data center. The location is built on bedrock and is well above sea level. Kevin Clark, IT director at the data center, says these precautions were planned well ahead of the site's construction and were the primary methods they used for disaster planning.

"We have production facilities in Singapore and at Skywalker Ranch [the home base for George Lucas, located on the same campus as Lucasfilm], and we rely on a core infrastructure -- the data and applications we use at each site, which we could use to carry on with our work," says Clark. "The architecture of the building is designed to give a little if there is a tremor. We also have 1.5-megawatt generators on site, and run our entire data center on UPS. We're always trying to improve our disaster planning, but we also recognize that we can't sacrifice the work at hand for any long-term plans that may or may not be that effective in an earthquake."

Clark explained that the creative environment in which they work has to take priority over technical plans for disaster recovery, including the location of the data center itself. A more extreme disaster plan, such as locating the data center in a less earthquake-prone area, would hamper creativity when the throughput was not as high without the data center nearby.

The Uptime Institute's Brill says that a more catastrophic event such as an earthquake requires a plan for replicating data to a safe location, and because building codes are typically geared for earthquakes (as opposed to codes suited to other areas) the focus should be on contingency plans for data.

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