Testing Your Disaster Recovery Plan

Having a disaster recovery plan that covers alternative work space is one thing, but knowing that it will work when you need it is another. The only way you can know for sure is to test the plan before a disaster strikes.

Too often, though, testing of business continuity plans is an afterthought, experts say. Those managing business continuity—that means IT as well as disaster planning managers—need to make sure they do the tests regularly and use them to provide upper management with an accurate assessment of readiness, said Carl Greiner, an analyst with Meta Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn. Testing also allows employees to become familiar in advance with alternative work locations and any differences in the technology or work environments they will face. It can also help to highlight weaknesses in the plans.

“Business continuity plans are living documents, and in order to make sure they remain relevant to your organization, they have to be tested on a regular basis,” said John McCarthy, director of critical infrastructure services for KPMG LLP, in Washington.

Some large companies conduct tests as often as twice a year. Every May and October, for example, Pioneer Investment Management Inc. conducts tests of the company’s business continuity plans, including having groups of employees relocate for the day to alternative work sites, said Michael Cady, assistant vice president of business continuity, in Medford, Mass. For the next test, scheduled for Oct. 18, Cady plans to move 30 to 40 customer service representatives to the Quincy, Mass., call center of Boston Financial Data Services Inc., one of two companies Pioneer has a contract with for emergency space. They will work an entire day there handling live customer calls and learning how the call center system works.

“The way you test is to go down and do it,” Cady said. “It gives everybody a familiarity of what is expected of them.”

At least once a year, food maker Nestlé USA, in Glendale, Calif., sends out a portion of the total number of employees who could be moved in the event of a disaster to the backup sites. About 100 of the 300 possible employees relocate to a Southern California hotel designated for work space recovery and 50 out of 100 possible workers head to a Comdisco Inc. site in the area, said Michael Mayhall, director of business continuity planing for Nestlé USA, a division of Nestlé S.A., of Vevey, Switzerland.

Testing needs to extend beyond a company’s four walls to include business partners, as Visa International has discovered. The credit card company, in Foster City, Calif., provides customer and call center support to member banks in the event of emergencies. Run-throughs involving work space and data recovery are performed to ensure continuity during a disaster. All that testing paid off during the World Trade Center attacks when the call centers at several banks were unable to provide customer support to Visa card-holding customers traveling outside the United States. As outlined in Visa’s business continuity plans, all calls from international customers of those banks were routed to Visa call centers and handled by Visa employees.

“You can never be too ready,” said Ken Lieberman, executive vice president of international risk management at Visa. “If our partners and customers aren’t up and running, then we aren’t, either.”

For those businesses that haven’t been actively testing, though, experts say now is a logical time to test business continuity and work space recovery. That’s because the WTC disaster has created more awareness of disaster recovery planning among many in upper management.

“With something like this [disaster], all bets are off,” Meta Group’s Greiner said. “So you owe the businesspeople an update of what level of capability you have.”

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in eWEEK.

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