Matt Kingswood, head of managed services, IT Specialists
Matt Kingswood, head of managed services, IT Specialists

This past April, a ruptured gas main in Holborn sparked a conflagration that, according to BBC News, forced 5,000 people to evacuate and cut off gas and electric supplies from thousands of properties.

The blaze highlighted the vulnerability of not only the city's infrastructure but also the businesses affected by the incident. As with any disaster, the fire gave no advance notice, and organisations were forced to quickly activate their business continuity plans in order to maintain operations remotely. Accountancy firm Alliotts, for example, had to evacuate 70 staff. Fortunately, the firm had already moved its computer servers off-site, so employees were able to keep on working from another office or their homes using a remote login system.

Why a business continuity plan is necessary

Business interruptions like the ones caused by the Holborn fire are more common than you might think. Local interruptions can cause downtime for utilities – especially energy and telecoms – and unpredictable weather can bring roads and public transport systems to a standstill. Even day-to-day mishaps can constitute disasters: a malfunctioning application that prevents field service engineers from ordering key spare parts; a sudden demand on bandwidth from remote workers that leads to severe latency or outages; or core IT systems downtime that rapidly unravels workflows.

If your company fails to deliver as it should during an interruption, you risk damaging goodwill with your customers, whose expectations are growing. In the latest report from the Institute of Customer Service, 62 percent of customers said they wanted a balance of price and service, with at least a minimum service threshold level.

Business continuity planning helps you address the need for highly available systems while ensuring your employees are able to continue doing their jobs and meeting customers' needs.

Beginning the planning process

Before creating your plan, conduct a business impact analysis to help you map your organisation's locations, identify key assets and operations, and determine the critical processes and minimum resources you need to operate. Your organisation will have unique business continuity needs, but the following are some of the most common businesses vulnerabilities:

Data backup – To ensure data redundancy, data must be backed up off-site. While dedicated data centre or co-location solutions can be cost prohibitive, the cloud storage solutions available today provide access to reliable, cost-effective disaster recovery capabilities.

Network access – Employees need access to your network and applications to continue being productive. Managed servers and cloud computing can help ensure employees have remote access to the resources they need.

Personal device use – Staff members are likely to use their personal mobile devices to conduct work remotely. Having a comprehensive bring-your-own-device strategy gives you more flexibility when it comes to remote working, but be sure to address security requirements to avoid potential breaches.

Telephony – When your primary phone lines go down, you'll need an alternate way to communicate with employees and customers. You can use a cloud-based or voice over IP (VoIP) telephony solution to remotely manage your communication options by deploying pre-recorded greetings and redirecting phones to an alternate office location or staff cell phones.

Internet connectivity – With so many business applications and processes being dependent on an Internet connection, it's important to plan for Internet outages. Dual Internet provision can gives you access to an alternative cable, DSL or mobile Internet service if the primary service is not available.

Once you have a plan, it's important to test it to identify problems you've overlooked. Case in point: after Alliotts activated its plan, some employees discovered they'd left their keys in the evacuated office and were locked out of their homes. Had this issue been encountered during a test, the company could have encouraged employees not to leave their house keys at the office.

 Without a plan, however, Alliotts would have faced worse than lost keys. The effects of the Holborn fire – closed roads, broadband and power outages, and fire damage – were enough to bring an organisation's operations to a grinding halt.

Although the fire was a costly and unfortunate incident, it serves as a timely reminder: failing to plan is planning to fail.

Contributed by Matt Kingswood, head of managed services, IT Specialists (ITS)