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But then I got to thinking: How can IT people plan and prepare for disasters of this magnitude? With an uncertain climactic future and a volatile geopolitical climate, this isn't an unreasonable question. Our Cover Story will help you prepare for "ordinary" disasters. Is there something to be done about extraordinary ones before they happen?
Our society is at a crossroads that we're slow to recognize. We talk about being an information society, but have we done enough to protect that aspect of it? When societies moved to being urban, it took centuries to build the sewers, fire protection and other facilities we now take for granted. Maybe that's what's happening with our societal disaster-response capacity. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, as people begin to rebuild an entire city and region, we'll have the opportunity to examine what could have been done to make our infrastructure more resilient.
Beyond hunger and thirst, hygiene and fear, many refugees from Katrina, as well as their families and friends around the region and world, are suffering from a lack of knowledge. Where's my wife? What happened to my baby in the neonatal ward? What happened to my grandfather in the nursing home or my daughter in college? As the days go by, people will find themselves without their financial and medical records that are stored in computers in banks and hospitals that lack electricity or perhaps have no walls. Many buildings will be bulldozed, including offices with important information in file cabinets and now-defunct computers. Birth records, school transcripts, employment records, criminal records--much of the basic information about peoples' lives--is likely to disappear.
If we're going to live in an information economy, this is unacceptable. It's time for a dialogue on how business and government can cooperate to build a more resilient information infrastructure. I share many peoples' concerns about the growing accumulation of private information and the potential strains on freedom this practice poses. But Katrina exposes what happens when the reverse occurs: when our information disappears or is inaccessible when we're forcibly kicked off the grid.
The market has produced a host of relevant technologies like redundant networking, incremental data replication and failover clustering. They all carry a cost and a complexity, and many haven't been standardized, commoditized or deployed on a large scale. In light of Katrina, it seems that public policies should be developed to ensure these technologies are applied to some of the information infrastructure that would relieve human suffering and speed recovery in situations like Sept. 11 and Katrina. Public monies should also be spent. It's becoming painfully obvious that the cost of not doing so is too great.
The problem is too big for government or business alone. But it's time to start talking about what a DR plan for society looks like.
This was first published in October 2005