How Was It for You?

April 28, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Posted in Business Continuity Planning, Collaboration, Home Office | 3 Comments
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Credit & Copyright: Marco Fulle (Stromboli Online)

  So, how was the office when you arrived at work on last Monday morning?  Quiet?  Like all good disasters, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland was the first of a cascading series of events.   The eruption occurred at a time when, unseasonably the prevailing winds across the UK were from the North West (typically at this time of year, our weather comes from the South West), carrying the ash cloud over Northern Europe.  In truth the authorities had no choice to close airspace until the picture became clearer.  But, you know all this.  The key thing, is it happened on the final weekend of the schools’ Easter holidays, leaving thousands of families stranded. Up to 100,000 Britons were caught up in the chaos, so chances are, at least some of your staff didn’t show up on Monday morning and some of them may not be back yet.   It’s always inconvenient when staff are absent, but what if they’re key workers?  While we’re prepared (at least to some degree) to cope with major disruptions to our IT infrastructure, or even our physical premises, there’s an increasing awareness that people also affect business continuity.   When disaster strikes, the first priority is to stop events spiralling out of control and developing into a crisis.  In his book “Managing the Human Factor in Information Security“, David Lacey describes how the most sophisticated organisations have standing crisis management teams and conduct regular exercises for those team, anticipating a wide range of situations, however improbable, and planning the business response to protect reputation and customer confidence.  A little over a year ago, we were listening in horror to apocalyptic forecasts of the impending Swine Flu pandemic.  Mercifully, that didn’t happen to anything like the level feared.  But hopefully, the  planning you did then (you did make plans, didn’t you?) will have helped you this week.  As we emerge from the recession, staffing levels have been pared to the bone; plus, we know that many families barely cope with childcare provisions, particularly during school holidays.  So, it’s prudent to assume that loss of key workers is to be a recurring problem.  

 To prepare your business, you need to be able to answer the following questions:       

  1.  Do you know who your key workers are?
  2. Do you know where they are at the moment? 
  3. What critical activities are they handling in the short-term?
  4. What information do they need to keep those activities moving?
  5. Can they access it remotely if necessary?
  6. If a key worker becomes unavailable, who could deputise?
  7. Do those deputies know what  the priority actions are?
  8. Can they reach the necessary information?

One important thing you could do, which is specific to the recent problem, is to provide assistance to key staff when they’re travelling, either on business or for pleasure.  Until last year, I worked for a very large global software vendor.  When I booked a trip through the corporate travel booking system, my itinerary and contact details were automatically passed to a partner organisation.  I carried a card with telephone numbers for a 24 hour emergency contact centre and, if needed, the partner could arrange direct assistance including evacuation if needed.        Once you understand the “who” and the “what”, you can turn your attention to the “where” and the “how” by preparing mitigation strategies:       

  1.    Equip your key staff to work off the premises —  many of your key workers may already be equipped with laptops and smart phones, to fulfil their day-to-day responsibilities.  Do they need to be given additional equipment?  3G dongles or modems?   Would it be wise to provide more key staff with laptops and smart phones?
  2. Make sure your key staff are set up to work from home — As well as providing the necessary equipment, you need to be sure that home workers have adequate facilities.  The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development offers advice on managing home workers.
  3. Make sure your key staff have access to audio/video conferencing and online meeting facilities — Providing access to an audio conference bridge is easy to set up.  You can relay the bridge details by mobile phone or email as needed.  Where staff need to use this facility with customers or partners, they’ll need their own bridge account with your supplier.  There are a range of online meeting systems, such as Microsoft Live Meeting, Citrix Goto Meeting or Cisco Webex.  Many organisations ban the use of Skype on corporate networks, but in an emergency, it’s simple to use and many people already have access from their home PCs.
  4. Rethink your admission control for personal devices — Organisations are understandably reluctant to let staff use personal devices (PCs, smart phones) to access the corporate network.  But, in an emergency, this could be the only way to reconnect key workers, who can’t make it into the office.  Consider whether you can pre-approve home PCs for some key staff (Do they have up-to-date anti-virus/spyware?  Is Windows Update turned on?) and relax network admission controls to allow their use in an emergency (you don’t use admission controls?  We really need to talk!)
  5. Decide how you’ll cope with the additional connections through your VPN gateways and firewalls — The likelihood is that your contingency plans will mean a large increase in the number of staff access the corporate network from outside.  It’s wise to hold discussions with the vendors of your perimeter security solutions beforehand, to decide how any licence “overdraft” can be handled.
  6. Make sure that deputies can access all the data they need in the absence of key staff — This is a procedural issue, to provide elevated access privileges to those staff who will deputise for missing key workers.  The procedures for requesting and approving elevated privilege, and for “break glass” access in a fast-developing emergency can be built into your identity and access management systems, but that’s a subject for another post on another day.
  7. Consider how you can arrange for collaboration on key project information —  I’ve written before in this blog about how you can organise information in Microsoft OneNote and synchronise it between an office PC and a laptop.  I’ve also written about how this synchronisation can be extended to the iPhone.  In the corporate environment, collaboration using OneNote notebooks can be managed through the (increasingly ubiquitous) Sharepoint portal.  Using a combination like this, the key information needed for critical activities is shared between all the members of your team and can be accessed almost wherever they are.  For now, the solution for iPhone is limited to read-only, but even that is due to be rectified very shortly.

One final thought — like all contingency plans, you need to test your arrangements.  There are bound to be things you’ve forgotten and you’ll only find out what they are when you do it.  Online tech news website Silicon.Com arranges periodic “Work at Home”  days, where all the editorial staff stay out of the office and they try to run the business day as normal.  It’s an excellent way to find out what works and what needs tweaking.  

Lost Connection

April 15, 2010 at 2:56 pm | Posted in Business Continuity Planning, Home Office | 3 Comments
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If you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume that you have regular access to an Internet connection, either at home, or at work , or both.  So, let me start by asking you some questions:

  • How important is your Internet connection to your every day life?
  • How long can you afford to be without the connection?
  • Have you made any plans to cope with the loss of your connection?

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly we’re all becoming dependent upon Internet-based communications.  10 years ago, dial-up modems were the norm and home access to the Internet was only for the technically savvy.   Over the last decade, I’ve moved through unlimited evening and weekend access, to unlimited anytime access and onto broadband, first at 512Kbps and by increments up to 8Mbps (as luck should have it, the local BT exchange is around 150 yards from V1951 Towers, so we do actually get a reasonable speed).  We use that connection for 3 different PCs, an internet radio, my iPhone, my home office phone, our Nintendo Wii (for BBC iPlayer), MrsV1951’s Nintendo DS and anything else we can think of.  And the trend is bound to continue.  More and more devices are now internet-enabled.  Did you know that you can even buy TVs with built-in Skype?  No?  Well, take a look at this

We use our internet connection as the platform of choice for banking, managing insurances, researching new purchases (and often making those purchases), booking holidays and countless other day-to-day activities.  We’re currently looking forward to being able to make and change appointments at the local doctors’ surgery online.  Plus of course, as a self-employed consultant, I mostly work from home! 

So, a few weeks ago, I was running seriously late (for a variety of reasons) on the promised delivery of a draft report to a customer.  At around 7pm that evening, my broadband connection failed.  Disaster!  MrsV1951 and I were due to leave at 5am the following morning for the airport, en route to a few days holiday.  A quick investigation showed that while all my devices were connecting to the wi-fi element of the Home Hub, none could reach the outside world.  The hub however seemed to be synchronised with the ADSL service.  Having first got an apology off to my customer (thank heavens for iPhone and 3G – the customer kindly agreed to a generous extension to the deadline), I phoned BT’s help desk (inevitably, it’s in India).  I explained the situation – I have identical symptoms from multiple PCs, so it looks like the hub – but the help desk agent was clearly following a script and insisted that we slowly and painfully check configuration settings and Internet Explorer settings on the PC, and then repeat it all on a second PC and then change the connection from wireless to wired and do it all again.  After 2 hours, during which I’d been told to click the reset button in Internet Explorer (“Don’t worry, it won’t change your configuration.”  Yes it did! For a start, it disabled all my add-ins), I was close to hysteria.  My comments about single point failures were totally ignored, but finally, I got the answer (“We can see the sync signal from your ADSL hub, so it must be a problem on the hub.  We’ll try a hard reset and, if that doesn’t work we’ll need to replace the hub.”) that I’d been hoping for at the start of the call.  Fortunately, that restored the connectivity, just leaving me another couple of hours, resetting all the configurations I’d lost during the troubleshooting.  The following morning, tired after only a couple of hours sleep and a long drive to the airport, I vented my frustration on Twitter.   I was quite surprised to get the following reply:

Useful to have a fairly direct line of communication to people who can help.  If you’re a BT Total Broadband customer, it’s well worth following this account on Twitter (@BTCare) for service updates.  Interestingly, I’d not seen this publicised anywhere until they contacted me.  Incidentally, a little detective work revealed that the fault coincided with BT pushing a firmware update to the hub and also that I wasn’t the only person to lose their service as a result.

So, given that I work from home, I should have had the sense to make provision for this sort of failure, right?  Well, maybe, but it seems to me that we’ve already come to regard our broadband connection as just another utility.  We assume that it’s going to be available and working, whenever we choose to use it.  Product assurance engineers will explain that component failure rates mean there will always be a degree of unreliability.  However, that can often be unacceptable.  In the military, some systems are classed as militarily essential.  Thus, they are designed with multiple levels of redundancy and spares are carried, even for components that are never expected to fail.  David Hart Dyke was Captain of HMS Coventry during the Falklands War.  He once commented that “To me, reliability means that, when I push the button, it works.” 

So,  when I returned from holiday, I bought a 3G dongle and tested it from my desktop PC and my laptop.  I’m not going to get caught out again.

Looking to the future, my neighbour and his neighbour are both consultants, also working from home offices.  We’re discussing the possibility of introducing routers and CAT 5 cables between our 3 houses, to provide a fallback capability if any one of us loses broadband connection.  We might even look into broadband aggregation services, to permanently combine our bandwidth.  Peter Cochrane describes how aggregation services work in his blog.

Finally, I found a series of short videos by journalists, scientists and technologists, speculating on what the World be will be like in 10 years’ time.  You can find these thought-provoking pieces on  the Huffington Post.  The last video, is by Johan Bergendahl, VP of Marketing at Ericsson and discusses the importance of broadband.  Take a look at it below.

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