When Disaster Strikes: Maxava Discusses the Christchurch Earthquake
March 15, 2011 Simon O'Sullivan
Editor’s Note: This story was written by Maxava and submitted to IT Jungle less than two weeks after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake on February 22 caused extensive damage and killed at least 160 people in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. Little did anyone know that northeast Japan would be hit by an even more devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 11. Our hearts go out to the survivors and emergency responders involved in both disasters.
When IT managers and executive management discuss the concept of risk management and disaster recovery, each side has a different opinion of what constitutes a disaster. For a CEO, a disaster can be losing critical revenue streams, credit lines, and key staff resources. For a facilities manager, it might be a devastating fire or an explosion that cripples resources. For a sales representative, it might be a theft or damage of a laptop with his entire customer database.
The recent earthquake in New Zealand occurred in our backyard by world standards but was actually over 600 miles from the Maxava headquarters. We have six Maxava customers in the general area–although only one was in the central business district, which was one of the hardest hit areas.
The Central Business District (CBD) was cordoned-off immediately after the earthquake and many businesses were forced to evacuate, leaving behind their computer servers and backup tapes. It’s now been over a week since the initial earthquake and those businesses have not yet been able to retrieve their computer records and data as many areas are still only accessible to emergency services.
One poignant piece of footage on the news was a man walking down the street with huge damage all around him. He had a computer server under each arm. We have to guess his plan was to grab the stuff and run. The unfortunate reality is that this isn’t a plan, and we’re certain that many businesses will fail in the coming months because they were not prepared for this earthquake. Many businesses didn’t have adequate backups–they have lost access to their servers and their data, and are not equipped to operate remotely.
Local news reports indicate that key company personnel are going to be given limited access to premises–about 10 minutes for each building affected–so that staff may be escorted into the various offices by civil defence professionals to retrieve vital records. They will have to locate those records and computers in the rubble and bring out what they can. Large events such as an earthquake, or even a localised fire, mean that physical access to servers and data can often be delayed by days or weeks…and that assumes they survived the disaster itself. The Christchurch CBD is likely to be closed for months and even those businesses whose buildings did not sustain any damage may still be cordoned-off while recovery efforts go on.
Imagine for a moment it’s your office crumbled and in pieces. Your equipment has been crushed by heavy debris, possibly burned in a fire, water-logged by fire department hoses and then exposed to the elements for days on end. Without an effective disaster recovery plan and the technology enabled to execute on the plan, businesses affected by the earthquake, or any other natural disaster, are crippled until they can get to their data. Because we are a disaster recovery company, Maxava gets to work with many companies facing disasters of various magnitudes. In the past year we have helped our customers through serious machine failures, hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, and now earthquakes. The only thing similar in all these cases is that despite being prepared each company never really thought it would happen to them.
One of our customers inside the Christchurch CBD has successfully minimized the risk of a catastrophic event crippling their business. They are a large nationwide chain with 80 stores throughout New Zealand. They used disaster recovery software to replicate their data from their headquarters in Christchurch to a data center in Auckland that’s about 600 miles away. The day after the earthquake struck, this chain was up and running at 90 percent of its normal business capacity. This improved to 95 percent by day two.
Our other customers in the area were fortunate not to sustain damage to their buildings or lose access to their servers, but the fact that they were replicating their data to another location in real-time did give them options to failover to an alternate location should the situation deteriorate. We stood by to provide support in case this was necessary. Most were running on generator power for several days and some were fortunate to only suffer an extensive power outage.
What Do You Do After A Disaster?
Communication becomes the overriding concern when disaster strikes. Our customer in the CBD told us that they could not contact anyone after the quake–mobile phones were not working and the landline phones were down. Power and water were out. The first hours were spent on checking friends and family–helping with rescue and recovery. Mobile phone coverage was restored about eight hours after the quake. Business should plan for this. They should expect that communications will be down for sometime and put a plan in place to work around this.
So how do you communicate when the phone lines are down? In much like your family’s plan to escape a burning house to meet at a neighbor’s lawn to make sure everyone got out safely, have a similar plan in place for staff to meet at a set location after a disaster strikes. If that location isn’t feasible, what is your plan B location and your plan C?
In the case of our customer in the CBD, staff de-camped to a private house outside the cordon and ran their data recovery from there. At Maxava, events such as this act as a catalyst to further review our own planning–as well as having the benefit of offices in the US, Europe, and Japan, our offices in Auckland and Wellington duplicate our data and resources, development, support and administration. If either of these sites should suffer a disaster then the other can pick up its workload to ensure our customers are always supported. We are passionate about reducing companies risk profiles and advise and encourage all companies to take the steps necessary to mitigate the consequences of a disaster as much as possible.
As a customer, your disaster recovery vendor should be proactive in calling you for an assessment of the damage and the building where your office is to find out if the servers are still available and functioning. If they are still functioning, an immediate role swap review should begin to determine if a swap to an alternate location is required. But a business should also consider what to do if their servers are not available, and what to do if they can’t get access to their data for a week or longer. An immediate role swap and deployment of their disaster recovery plan will be required. This is what the reality is for many businesses in Christchurch. The painful truth is some businesses will never recover because they did not have plans in place.
The February 22 earthquake came five months after the even larger Canterbury earthquake on September 4, 2010. After the September earthquake–which did not kill anybody but caused power outages and rattled nerves–a number of businesses in the affected region around Christchurch got serious about disaster recovery planning. They put their servers into data centers or set up backup plans. They tested their plans. One of our customers ordered their DR software after the September earthquake, but had not yet implemented it. We’re helping them get back in business as quickly as possible.
If a company is worried about aftershocks or the power supply in the coming months, then they can set up alternate backup sites out of the area and vendors can help them replicate their data or migrate to another location. It is critical to test your role-swap! It’s true that the companies best prepared for a disaster suffer the least interruption. This is the case for our well-prepared customer in the CBD.
If you don’t have a disaster recovery plan and access to your data is business-critical, what are you waiting for? You need to take the following steps:
Personal Note: At Maxava, we felt it important to communicate some of our experiences in the recent earthquake. At the time of writing this piece, the rescue and recovery operation is still in operation. Our thoughts are with the people of Christchurch and the families of those killed or missing.
Simon O’Sullivan is senior vice president of Maxava, the worldwide provider of innovative IBM i high availability and disaster recovery software solutions. He previously worked with IBM for 10 years on implementation projects in England, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.