Hoping for the Best and Planning for the Worst

It isn't easy to write a column about server-based computing this week following last Tuesday's terrorist attack. But while we're recovering from this attack, we need to keep in mind that something like this could happen again, and prepare for that eventuality. I'd like to address the question of how we can continue to work in the aftermath of such a tragedy, whether intentional or accidental. If such a catastrophe happens again, we need to be able to keep functioning in its wake instead of being unable to work, as many of us have been during the past week.

Tuesday's attack highlighted three business vulnerabilities: backups, data access, and communications. How can online services help reduce these vulnerabilities?

We all know that it's wise to back up data off-site, but how many of us actually store backups in another building? Some companies housed in the World Trade Center lost their backups to the same fire and destruction that destroyed the original data. For companies located in a vulnerable building, backing up isn't enough. The backups themselves must be protected. Technical companies that deal with infrastructure and information storage will probably see increased business in the coming months—as long as they can demonstrate that their storage areas are safe. Bunkers leap to mind.

Data Access
Data access is as important as offsite backups, with one difference: You need offsite backups so you can recover business data, but you need online data access so that you can reach business data without first having to reload it from backups. A service provider can maintain data so that its clients can go back to work without having to completely rebuild their offices and systems.

Travel will be unpleasant for a while—perhaps permanently. Heightened security measures will certainly make flying more time-consuming than it already is. Also, the airlines are experiencing financial repercussions from reduced traffic, criticisms of their security procedures, and closures for several days last week. Some airlines have reduced their schedules by as much as 20 percent. I don't really like video teleconferencing (VTC); it's jerky, and I'd rather talk with people in person. But if the people I need to talk to are scattered across the United States (or outside it), and it's difficult to gather all of those people in one place for a face-to-face meeting, I might get over my dislike of VTC or find that it balances pretty well against my dislike of spending all day flying halfway across the country for a meeting. For these reasons, I expect VTC, messaging, and other forms of online communication to increase. Online retailing won't have the same advantages because that industry depends on shipping—we haven't yet found a way to email tangible goods. Shipping seems to be returning to normal, but if delivery systems experience disruptions again, people will be more likely to buy locally.

All these solutions depend on access to a reliable high-speed network. Although it will cost money, in the wake of the attack, improving access to high-speed networks will be critical so people can continue to work even if they can't travel or work from their usual offices. If we lose network access to a significant degree, all bets are off; none of these solutions will work. The Internet is designed to work if large parts of it are destroyed. Last Tuesday's attack didn't target networks specifically (although it certainly hit parts of the Internet), but future attacks could. But if the Internet becomes so damaged that it ceases to be a reliable form of communication, loss of company data will probably be the least of our concerns.

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