Business continuity and disaster recovery planning: The basics

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Good business continuity plans will keep your company up and running through interruptions of any kind: power failures, IT system crashes, natural disasters, supply chain problems and more

Disaster recovery and business continuity planning are processes that help organizations prepare for disruptive events—whether those event might include a hurricane or simply a power outage caused by a backhoe in the parking lot. The CSO's involvement in this process can range from overseeing the plan, to providing input and support, to putting the plan into action during an emergency. This primer (compiled from articles on CSOonline) explains the basic concepts of business continuity planning and also directs you to more resources on the topic. Last update: 3/24/2015.

Q: "Disaster recovery" seems pretty self-explanatory. Is there any difference between that and "business continuity planning"?

A: Disaster recovery is the process by which you resume business after a disruptive event. The event might be something huge-like an earthquake or the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center-or something small, like malfunctioning software caused by a computer virus.

Despite these distinctions, the two terms are often married under the acronym BC/DR because of their many common considerations.

FREE: Download CSOonline's Ultimate Guide to Business Continuity now! [11 page PDF free Insider registration is required]

What do these plans include?

All BC/DR plans need to encompass how employees will communicate, where they will go and how they will keep doing their jobs. The details can vary greatly, depending on the size and scope of a company and the way it does business. For some businesses, issues such as supply chain logistics are most crucial and are the focus on the plan. For others, information technology may play a more pivotal role, and the BC/DR plan may have more of a focus on systems recovery. For example, the plan at one global manufacturing company would restore critical mainframes with vital data at a backup site within four to six days of a disruptive event, obtain a mobile PBX unit with 3,000 telephones within two days, recover the company's 1,000-plus LANs in order of business need, and set up a temporary call center for 100 agents at a nearby training facility.

But the critical point is that neither element can be ignored, and physical, IT and human resources plans cannot be developed in isolation from each other. (In this regard, BC/DR has much in common with security convergence.) At its heart, BC/DR is about constant communication.

Business, security and IT leaders should work together to determine what kind of plan is necessary and which systems and business units are most crucial to the company. Together, they should decide which people are responsible for declaring a disruptive event and mitigating its effects. Most importantly, the plan should establish a process for locating and communicating with employees after such an event. In a catastrophic event (Hurricane Katrina being a relatively recent example), the plan will also need to take into account that many of those employees will have more pressing concerns than getting back to work.

For instance, a stock trading company may decide to pay for completely redundant IT systems that would allow it to immediately start processing trades at another location. On the other hand, a manufacturing company may decide that it can wait 24 hours to resume shipping. A BIA will help companies set a restoration sequence to determine which parts of the business should be restored first.

Here are 10 absolute basics your plan should cover:

    1. Develop and practice a contingency plan that includes a succession plan for your CEO.
    2. Train backup employees to perform emergency tasks. The employees you count on to lead in an emergency will not always be available.
    3. Determine offsite crisis meeting places and crisis communication plans for top executives. Practice crisis communication with employees, customers and the outside world.
    4. Invest in an alternate means of communication in case the phone networks go down.
    5. Make sure that all employees-as well as executives-are involved in the exercises so that they get practice in responding to an emergency.
    6. Make business continuity exercises realistic enough to tap into employees' emotions so that you can see how they'll react when the situation gets stressful.
    7. Form partnerships with local emergency response groups—firefighters, police and EMTs—to establish a good working relationship. Let them become familiar with your company and site.
    8. Evaluate your company's performance during each test, and work toward constant improvement. Continuity exercises should reveal weaknesses
    9. Test your continuity plan regularly to reveal and accommodate changes. Technology, personnel and facilities are in a constant state of flux at any company.
    10. For more details, see this book excerpt on business impact analysis, including a sample BIA form.

Hold it. Actual live-action tests would, themselves, be the "disruptive events." If I get enough people involved in writing and examining our plans, won't that be sufficient?

Let us give you an example of a company that thinks tabletops and paper simulations aren't enough. And why their experience suggests they're right.

When [former] CIO Steve Yates joined USAA, a financial services company, business continuity exercises existed only on paper. Every year or so, top-level staffers would gather in a conference room to role-play; they would spend a day examining different scenarios, talking them out-discussing how they thought the procedures should be defined and how they thought people would respond to them.

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