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Three Steps For Business Continuity if a Pandemic Hits

By Tony Rybczynski


The avian flu virus has been in the news as it spreads from Asia to Europe and Africa. To date, it has resulted in the deaths of some 200 million birds and over 100 humans who have come in contact with infected birds. The concern is that the virus will spread globally and that genetic mutation will result in an ability to be transmitted efficiently among humans.

Timing is impossible to predict. However, governments around the world are taking the threat seriously.

The U.S. National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response, announced last November, is intended to limit the spread of a pandemic; mitigate disease, suffering, and death; and minimize impact to the economy and the functioning of society. The Implementation Plan of the Federal Government recommends that �government entities and the private sector plan with the assumption that up to 40 percent of their staff may be absent for periods of about two weeks at the height of a pandemic wave, with lower levels of staff absent for a few weeks on either side of the peak.�

Business Continuity Planning
Pandemics can have different effects on an organization, this being highly dependent on industry. Certain demands may drop (e.g., in line with lower consumer spending), while others may increase (e.g., healthcare services). At the same time, supply chains and product distribution may also be impacted. These external factors may be difficult to control. On the other hand, enterprises should have a business continuity strategy that includes pandemic risks and balances business impact and cost. The first-order risks associated with a pandemic are primarily employee absenteeism due to illness, care-giving or fear of contamination. While employee education is outside of the scope of IT, an important focus for IT should be on developing an on-demand teleworking strategy for key employees.

This has three distinct components: remote user access, VPN connectivity, and IP Telephony and multimedia.

While everyone has a home phone (though they may not want to use it for work-related activities), not everyone has a PC. In addition, there is a proliferation of mobile devices, which can use WiFi (News - Alert) or public broadband wireless technologies (e.g., EV-DO or EDGE). This creates new opportunities for employees needing to remain connected during emergencies. The enterprise or government agency should have a policy and strategy to leverage portable and mobile computing platforms in emergencies.

Many enterprises and government departments have IPSec-based Virtual Private Network (VPN) deployments for their existing teleworkers and mobile users, using broadband access, such as cable modems and DSL. Increasingly, SSL VPNs are also being used, a solution that avoids the need for management of VPN clients. Business continuity planning must ensure that adequate capacity is available to handle increased VPN loads during emergencies and opens the door for restricted SSL application access from home PCs.

The third component relates to using IP Telephony and multimedia soft clients across these VPNs, allowing anytime, anywhere access to resources. IP telephony can be leveraged to allow knowledge workers and contact center agents to be quickly relocated in case of disasters. These clients allow teleworkers to free up their home phones and, importantly, allow clients to act as a logical extension to business desktop phones. This can eliminate the need for call-out lists, since the network has the intelligence to find the employee wherever they are connected � a key value for emergency response teams. Multimedia clients add the important notion of presence, secure instant messaging capabilities, and video, which can be critically important during emergencies.

Never the Last Word
The avian flu virus is just one type of disaster that can hit an organization. Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, and, of course, terrorism, can likewise severely impact an enterprise�s ability to run business as normal. During the SARS outbreak, Hong Kong authorities put severe control on commuting to work. After the Northeast blackout of 2003, the Ontario Government asked employers to close down their facilities while the nuclear power plants were brought back up on line. During this one-week period, I and about 5,000 of my co-workers (many of them software developers) were able to continue to operate on average at 85 percent of in-office productivity using our laptops configured with IPSec VPN, IP Telephony, and multimedia clients.

When disaster hits on a local or global basis, it is imperative to allow critical resources to continue to perform their duties, whether they are on-site or not. Portable and mobile devices and the proliferation of wired and wireless access technologies, IPSec and SSL VPN technologies, and IP telephony and multimedia are critical enablers for businesses and government departments to continue to operate under these conditions. Fortunately, these solutions are being widely deployed today as a means of lowering the cost of operation, enhancing productivity, and improving customer services. What is required is to establish a plan to rapidly expand the use of these technologies in emergency situations through in-house capacity planning or hosted services. IT

Tony Rybczynski is Director of Strategic Enterprise Technologies at Nortel (quote - news - alerts). He has over 30 years experience in the application of packet network technology. For more information, please visit

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