Apocalypse now

Downtime is not an option for IT departments, with more and more mission-critical internal business processes relying on IT. Duncan MacRae discovers it is in the CIO's best interests to prepare for the worst.

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By  Duncan MacRae Published  April 1, 2007

If a business is to be successful there are a number of assets that need to be well taken care of. These obviously include employees, customers, potential customers and all equipment necessary for the day-to-day running of operations.

While it is of utmost importance that these are well maintained, there is one asset that is by far the most important and can often be brushed under the carpet.

This is simply data - the very essence of any enterprise, small, medium or large. Research undertaken by Gartner suggests that two out of every five companies that experience a disaster leading to a loss of data will go out of business within five years as a result.

Further studies from the National Archives & Records Administration in the USA claim that 93% of companies that have lost their data centre for 10 days or more due to a disaster went on to file for bankruptcy within one year of the disaster.

Dhiren Harchandani, COO at Latitude Systems - a solutions provider that offers data protection and disaster recovery solutions through its partner, Sonasoft - says loosing access to critical data for even an hour can cost a company millions of dollars.

"The Meta Group reports that the downtime cost for each company in the energy industry is US$2.8 million/hour, in the telecom industry US$2.0 million/hour and for financial institutions, US$1.4 million/hour," Harchandani explains.

Data loss does not just mean a loss of money though. Firms are essentially losing information. They might have the resources and manpower to re-establish the company post-disaster, but if they don't have the data, which is the basis of the company, businesses can't contact their customers. They have lost them.

It is all too easy to be complacent - to think that because nothing has gone wrong so far it probably won't go wrong in the future. The fact is all businesses experience some sort of disaster and, in turn, data loss at some point in their lifespan.

When people think of ‘disasters' it is often images of earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes that the mind conjures up. These natural disasters, while devastating, are few and far between, particularly in the Middle East. It is the smaller, more discrete workplace disasters that are far more frequent and all too often forgot at the company's own peril.

Disasters within the business can take on many guises, including computer viruses, theft, power loss and hardware or systems malfunctions. In the GCC the power grid is fairly reliable, while in the Levant grid is very sensitive.

"Most of the companies in the GCC don't realise that no utility company gives them a guarantee that their power will be available 100%, 24/7, 365 days a year," says Vipin Sharma, VP of EEMEA sales at Tripp Lite, a manufacturer of uninterrupted power supply (UPS), surge suppressors, and other power protection devices.

According to Sharma, power infrastructure is something that businesses need to look at. Generally, when the power goes out, data storage and data processing devices are at stake. This can include high-density servers, storage servers, voice over IP servers, networking equipment, healthcare equipment and banking terminals - essential components of most businesses.

The two most common causes of data loss, however, are human error and employee sabotage, which may come as a surprise to many. Employees may potentially be stealing data or corrupting data.

"Of course nobody is going to admit that their employees sabotage their own data but you would be amazed at how often it happens," says Avinash Advani, CIO at Latitude Systems.

"Corruption doesn't just generally happen. If you protect yourself, your server and your infrastructure well enough, your data is protected strictly within the server itself, by RAID for example," Advani explains. "You've got RAID 1, RAID 3, RAID 5 in your hard drives. Why do those exist? If one hard drive fails or gets corrupt you've got another one to fall back on. That disaster recovery still exists, so why does data still get corrupt? You've got user error coming into play."

An IT manager may put too much stress on a single server, not configuring it the right way or not designing their infrastructure the right way, where there is more load on the infrastructure than there is capacity to handle it. This is where corruption can occur.

A user may not be aware of the impact that his or her actions can have on a system. An example would be a user upgrading an application and not understanding the impact that upgrade would have on other systems. These errors can be in the form of misconfiguring the application or typing in an incorrect command.

These are the common problems that CIOs in the Middle East are having to face in relation to data loss, but it may be worth sparing a thought for those original images of disaster conjured up by the imagination.

"In this region we've not really had the natural disasters that you might get in the United States, but recently we felt an earthquake in the UAE and have had major gale wind sandstorms. If there's a big enough earthquake in Iran then you're going to feel tremors or worse," Advani adds.

These particular tremors were felt in the east of the UAE in early March 2007 and, although they did not register particularly high on the richter scale, they are not a rare occurrence in the region.

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