Storms, Floods and Blackouts

How IT managers and disaster recovery planners can prepare for unpredictable weather.

The weather in the UK is becoming more unpredictable and IT managers and disaster recovery (DR) planners need to keep on their toes to avoid becoming the next unwitting victims of downtime, outages and worse.

Over the past winter, a barrage of flash floods overtook more than 5,000 homes and businesses on the south-western coast.1 But summer offers no respite; last year, we witnessed flash floods to the south-east, with lightning damaging buildings, rising waters invading homes and businesses, and waterlogged roads leaving people stranded in vehicles.2

In December, a “weather bomb” – an intense storm with low centre pressure triggered by jet stream changes3 – pummelled northern residents with rain, hail, lightning and blustery winds. Dangerous roads and incapacitated travel systems made travel difficult, if not impossible, while widespread power outages left tens of thousands of people without power.4

In fact, power outages in the UK last year more than doubled since 2013, according to Eaton’s Blackout Tracker report.5 To make the issue worse, the National Grid’s spare electricity capacity is dangerously low, with over a 12 percent shrinkage rate over the course of three years.6 While the National Grid is taking precautions to prevent widespread outages, the Ofgem Electricity Capacity Assessment Report 2014 estimates that margins will reach their lowest level in winter 2015-2016 as older power stations are shut down.7

Throughout the course of these events, many IT managers and DR planners were forced to demonstrate their ability to work well under pressure when responding to outages caused by severe weather or problems with critical power supply.

PREPARING FOR FUTURE OUTAGES

This year, the unpredictable weather shows no signs of letting up. In January, a 250 mph jet stream and two Atlantic weather bombs threatened winds of up to 90 mph.8 And while the Met Office reported that April was the fifth sunniest month across the UK, weather conditions varied drastically between regions. For instance, Faversham, Kent, experienced the highest recorded temperature of the year, while Katesbridge, Northern Ireland, experienced severe frosts accompanied by a temperature of -8C.9

Experts ‒ including researchers from the Met Office and Newcastle University10 and Edward Hanna, professor of climate change at the University of Sheffield11 ‒ suggest climate change could lead to an increase in severe weather phenomena such as flash flooding and weather bombs – which can in turn lead to blackouts (though it’s not certain that climate change is to blame for the variable weather).

Bearing this possibility in mind, your business should implement measures to cope with events that could damage your IT infrastructure and in turn, your ability to continue business operations. Below are a few steps your business might need to implement to weather the storms ahead.

Reduce the risk of data loss

Often even the most careful precautions can’t protect against system damage during storms. To reduce the risk of significant data loss, vault data off-site in a location that is as close as possible to your facility without there being a common risk between geographies. In the event that your primary facility is inaccessible, disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS) solutions can give you access to critical systems and data remotely in a virtual environment within your recovery time objectives. Because these solutions are billed based on actual cloud storage used, they are often more cost-effective than a dedicated data centre or colocation solution.

Keep systems powered up

Your business also needs to have a plan for power outages and ensure that any critical supply chain vendors do as well. To minimise the impact of a blackout on your business, classify your important systems and processes and determine what resources (e.g., uninterruptible power supply and generators) are necessary to sustain them during an outage.  

Outsource equipment and network repairs

After a severe weather event, your IT staff might be stretched thin seeing to hardware damaged by water or electrical surges and working to restore a damaged network. Enlisting the help of an IT managed services provider prior to an emergency provides the assurance that during an outage systems can quickly return to business as usual. To reduce the burden on staff, managed services providers help troubleshoot system errors and repair or replace hardware. If there is damage to the network, the provider assists with resolving network issues and performing any necessary re-cabling.

Implement a bring-your-own-device strategy

If employees aren’t able to access their primary work environment due to conditions such as closed roads, unsafe driving conditions or a power outage at the home office, they’re more likely to turn to their personal devices for work.

Although most UK businesses (95 percent, according to a BT study) permit bring-your-own-device (BYOD) practices, security is sorely lacking. BT’s research shows 41 percent of organisations have suffered a mobile security breach over the last year, 33 percent grant users unbridled access to the internal network, and 15 percent lack confidence that they have the resources to prevent a breach.12

It’s important to establish a BYOD policy that addresses issues such as data security, remote management, data transfer, backups, data wipe and technical support (office or field based). If you work with a managed services provider for your IT support, check to see if the vendor can assist with developing and supporting your BYOD program.

While you might not be able to predict exactly how weather- and utilities-related incidents will affect your business, it’s important that you think ahead and prepare. Using the right resources and enlisting the assistance of strategic vendors can alleviate some of the stress during an interruption and help you improve your ability to get back to business quickly. You might work well under pressure, but why place an unnecessary burden on yourself?

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