Admin Alert: Preparing Your i5 Shop for a Pandemic
June 7, 2006 Joe Hertvik
Reminiscent of Y2K fever, i5 administrators are now being asked how they might deal with a global influenza pandemic. Understanding that a real pandemic could usher in radical, albeit temporary, changes to company business and even threaten the business itself, prudent and cautious executives are requesting written feasible plans for keeping their networks and their i5 boxes humming a corporate tune. This week’s column discusses some things to consider in pandemic planning.
The Boring Background
Avian bird flu has already swept through millions of birds in Asia and Europe. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that we are in phase three of a six phase Pandemic Preparation Cycle, triggered by the Avian Flu. Phase 3 is the last part of the Interpandemic and Pandemic Alert Period, where human infections of a new virus are occurring but there are few (or zero) cases of the virus spreading from human-to-human contact. The Pandemic Period begins during phases 4, 5, and 6, when human-to-human infection starts occurring and it eventually spreads the virus throughout the world.
Pandemics historically appear in waves, and each wave is projected to last between six to 12 weeks, with a second outbreak occurring three to nine months after the first wave. If history is any judge, a pandemic may last as long as two to three years after the initial onset. In some reports, government official have advised businesses to plan for 30 to 50 percent absenteeism for up to six weeks during each wave.
This is the situation for which management wants you to ensure that your computer systems are up, running, and available to keep the business going. There are a number of specific items that you can pinpoint to keep your black box running the business after other systems have given up the ghost. Here are some simple things that you can plan for in response to a pandemic situation as they relate to the i5, iSeries, and AS/400 servers.
The i5 and Pandemonium
When looking at IT preparation for a pandemic, you generally have to prepare your shop to handle the following three stages in pandemic situations. Each stage brings different challenges, but many of the challenges can be anticipated in advance so that you are ready to deal with them if they hit.
1. Social Distancing
This is the first stage of a pandemic response, where communities and companies take non-medical measures to reduce spreading a disease by discouraging or preventing people from coming into contact with each other. In this stage, authorities may close schools, colleges, and other public places; implement emergency staffing plans for area organizations (including increased telecommuting and flex or staggered scheduling); promote better hygiene; or suspend some non-essential governmental functions. In this stage, your organization may be able to stay open, but you may be running on reduced staff or in a different operating mode.
For an i5 shop, social distancing can have several repercussions. With schools closing, this may force your shop to provide more telecommuting options for parents who need to unexpectedly stay home with their children. Other employees may be forced to stay home for different reasons. The i5 and its predecessor boxes have excellent connectivity through TCP/IP, but social distancing situations may require you to provide remote connectivity quickly, without the benefit of fully testing 5250 terminal emulation and VPN software on a large number of home computers being used by new telecommuters.
To plan for increased telecommuting, you may want to look at a corporate license for a remote access package such as GoToMyPC.com, where remote users can use a Web site to access their corporate PCs and all their usual applications and data from their home PC. This could prevent you from having to support i5-based software, such as iSeries Access for Windows, ODBC drivers, and other packages, on a home computer. It would also stop you from having to set up VPN connections for each new telecommuter.
Solutions like GoToMyPC.com are easy to install on both the host and the client computer, and they cut down on support requirements because they don’t require a large desktop footprint. The software can also be downloaded from the Internet so, for a new telecommuting user, an on-site IT person can configure the user’s in-house machine for service hosting and the off-site telecommuter can download the remote access software to contact and run that at-work desktop from home.
Since pandemic planning tells us that the number of telecommuters in a company will increase during an outbreak, you may want to review your telecommunication setup and consider purchasing increased bandwidth before the pandemic occurs. A review is necessary because large groups of telecommuters might strain your existing telecommunications capabilities. You might especially want to look at your lines if your current telecommunications lines are already running above capacity for your current needs.
If your company is required to go to flex or staggered scheduling, where smaller groups of people work different shifts to cut down on the number of employees in the building at one time, you will also need to rethink your backup and batch processing schedule. If you start running a second shift at the same time that you would normally run a dedicated backup, you might need to change the time when the backup runs or rewrite your backup routine to run as a Save-while-active backup. Similarly, if you run batch processing jobs during off-hours because you need to keep all of your employees out of your data while you update files, you may need to retool your batch job schedule or determine if there’s a different way to do nightly processing.
In large companies, report distribution could also become an issue, when people have to travel around the company to retrieve or deliver reports. When planning for the pandemic, you could use this as a chance to digitize or email reports in PDF format or reroute necessary reports to printers that are nearer their intended recipients. By digitizing or emailing reports, you will also make it easier to provide this information to your telecommuting work force. You may also want to step up the email distribution of critical customer documents, such as order confirmations, credit memos, and invoices. There are several i5 vendors, including RJS Software Systems and Computer Keyes that offer email report servers that run on an i5 operating system.
Social distancing may also discourage your organization from gathering large groups of decision makers for conferences or meetings, out of fear of spreading viruses. To plan ahead, you should also look at face-to-face meeting alternatives, such as IBM’s Lotus Sametime instant messaging software (which can run on an i5/OS or OS/400 platform), as well as expanded voice-conferencing, video-conferencing, and white-boarding capabilities.
The isolation phase occurs when authorities require ill and infected patients to remain separated from everyone else in order to prevent them from transmitting the disease to other people. For i5 purposes, this probably means that you will not need to do that much more planning in this stage than you did in the social distancing phase. The only difference now is that people will actually start becoming sick and that may increase the amount of absenteeism in your organization, both from people who are getting sick and from people who are staying home with sick relations. This could accelerate the number of telecommuters who need to get to your box.
Isolation and infection will also start to reduce the number of people in your organization who are actually able to do the work. So your pre-pandemic planning should also include cross-training of critical company personnel in case someone is unable to make it into work to perform their functions. Absenteeism may also increase because as the number of people with influenza increases, medical health facilities will become overloaded and people may have problems visiting doctors, which could prolong their illnesses or their caregiver’s time away from the office. Further breakdowns in community and business services due to the pandemic will also affect your ability to keep your business running.
As the pandemic progresses, sick people will not be the only ones who are isolated. Local officials may also quarantine healthy people who have been exposed to the virus, in order to prevent further transmission. You may not be able to keep an i5 expert on site to maintain the box, and your on-site staff will be further reduced, which will, again, drive up the need for more telecommuting. If your organization has not yet reached the 30 to 50 percent absenteeism level referred to at the beginning of this article, this is the time when you may start experiencing significant absenteeism.
The good news is that, unlike Windows boxes, the i5, iSeries, and AS/400 boxes are legendary for their reliability, with the vast majority of shops running systems for months at a time without IPLing. So in a pandemic situation, where personnel may not always be available on site, most shops can usually rely on their i5/OS machines remaining up, as long as the system has power.
However, you have to be more careful of the ripple effect from other organizations suffering from reduced on-site personnel. In particular, if your local power company is trying to maintain the electrical grid with only 60 percent of its personnel, the building where you run your i5 box may start to experience brown-outs or power outages, which can play havoc with your system. To combat this, you may want to plan for the following contingencies:
Remote Power Off/Power On and IPL capabilities: In the event that you do need to remotely IPL or turn off an i5/OS machine, IBM offers unattended IPL capabilities where you can set up a schedule for automatically powering off and powering on any of your partitions. You should also check the Automatic IPL After Powered Restored (QPWRRSTIPL) system value, which tells your partitions whether or not to IPL if power is restored after your system unexpectedly ends in the middle of a power outage (QPWRRSTIPL is explained in more detail in an earlier Admin Alert column on Auditing Your IPL Parameters).
In addition to tweaking your i5’s power capability, you may also want to research power and temperature monitoring alarms that automatically alert you when the power goes out or the temperature rises above a certain level in the computer room.
Monitoring your message queues: Message monitoring can become an issue if a pandemic reduces available IT staff by 40 percent, and the remaining staff members are too busy to deal with day-to-day monitoring. If you haven’t already done so, pandemic preparation may provide an excuse to purchase i5/OS-based monitoring and paging software. Many third-party packages can be set up to monitor your i5/OS message queues and to automatically page or email several users when a problem occurs. Many of these systems can also initiate action on your box if a problem becomes acute. In day-to-day operations under normal conditions, these packages are a godsend; in a crisis situation, they are a necessity for informing on-site and off-site staff as to exactly what is happening.
Here is a partial list of vendors who provide i5/OS monitoring software for detecting system problems.
In addition, you may also want to study up on the process of shutting down an i5, iSeries, or AS/400 box by reviewing IBM’s controlled system shutdown documentation. If you are more of a do-it-yourselfer, you can also take advantage of IBM’s instructions for writing your own power-handling program for dealing with power outages.
Not the End, and Maybe Not Even the Beginning
The suggestions and scenarios that I have outlined here are just the start of how you may need to plan for a pandemic. Undoubtedly, there are several other items that will come into play for your specific situation. In addition, much of your planning will be driven to service specific business needs that your company will (hopefully) define in its corresponding pandemic business plan.
No one wants to see an influenza pandemic happen, but a basic pandemic plan that walks the line between ignorant complacency and irrational fear can function as an insurance policy against a potentially devastating event. Even if you never use your plan, it may be worth going through the exercise because the situation you are planning for–how to maintain your computer systems in the event that your employees are unable to reach the office–can also be applied to several other situations, including certain forms of natural disasters, terrorism, or other public emergencies. You never know when disaster planning can come in handy.
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