Disaster can strike any day, at any time, whether it's a devastating hurricane like last year's Katrina or an outbreak of the notorious avian flu pandemic that many fear will bring global economies to their knees. During a disaster, the ability to maintain a flexible communication structure among employees, partners, suppliers and customers is the key to survival for organizations large and small.
Unlike hurricanes, earthquakes and other national disasters that occur on a regional level, pandemic flu presents a unique problem because it knows no geographical bounds. Our winged friends automatically make avian flu a global problem. And although it has yet to make the infectious leap between humans, experts fear that human-to-human contagion is inevitable. They therefore say that now is the time for network architects and engineers to make business preparations. IT personnel need to become educated -- and to educate others -- about the potential crisis, and they must also leverage tools to mitigate communications problems.
"There is a huge burden on communication because so many people conduct day-to-day activities from almost anywhere," said Ken McGee, Gartner vice president and Gartner fellow.
McGee said that -- based on recent poll findings -- 99% of businesses "will not be able to respond to an avian influenza outbreak because of a lack of planning today." This is because almost all business continuity plans today focus on overcoming disruptions to infrastructure and systems. Almost no companies have developed plans for overcoming massive disruptions to the workforce, he said.
Make the workforce ready to brave the storm
Today's IP-based unified communications tools address the workforce issue up front. They lend location-independence to an organization's need for mobile communication and should top the list of technologies to include in a pandemic flu business-continuity plan. When deployed strategically, this set of technologies can play a pivotal role in the jobs of network architects and network engineers who are charged with ensuring that communications -- the heart of any business -- remain operational 24/7.
People already use a variety of devices to communicate, including wireless phones, PDAs, laptops and smartphones with messaging, instant messaging and text messaging capabilities. In addition, IP phones and SIP-based multimedia tools pull together faces, voices, documents, and presentations into a single virtual, collaborative space. And presence servers, which let callers know whether you're available and which device will reach you most easily, are currently making inroads into corporate communication strategies.
Messaging, collaboration, video, IP phones and presence capabilities are already available from a slew of vendors such as Cisco, Interwise, Mitel, Microsoft, Avaya, Spectralink, Webex and Citrix.
"Companies do need to make plans, whether or not they come to fruition," said Dave Spence, product manager for mobility solutions at Mitel, which makes SIP-based communications products for enterprises and small and medium business. "The simplest form of communication is a phone call. How are we going to guarantee that phone calls coming in will be distributed to the [right] people in your business?"
Spence explained, however, that thanks to IP telephony, an employee can simply take the phone from his desk, stick it in his bag, and then plug into an Ethernet connection at home. "It's the same phone you use every day, so when you get to your home office, features like voicemail and speed-dial … follow you wherever you go."
One vendor, Interwise, has a take-no-prisoners, redundant approach to unified communications. It makes its client available to everyone in its customer's organization, as well as partners, suppliers and customers. Interwise users typically buy an enterprise-wide license that makes conferencing available to everyone - like email - so should a pandemic arrive, the company is ready to conduct business remotely with every employee no matter where they are. Also, the company is unique in that it provides the option to handle communications on site or seamlessly hand it off to a hosted environment should the need be detected.
"As far as hosted vs. on-site, our customers said they need both. I can't tell you in a pandemic situation if I will be able to get to my own data center or a third-party hosted service, although I could give you scenarios where one is more preferable than the other," said Neil Lieberman, vice president of marketing for Interwise.
For example, Lieberman said, if a company's data center goes down and it can't be maintained remotely, "it's like a ship that's reeling in a storm and everybody runs to one side. That's when everybody runs to a hosted vendor."
"There is going to be more data content going across the wire than ever before," he said. "Are you confident that your hosted vendor will be there when you need it? On the other hand, your on-site solution may be up, and you may be able to get limited bandwidth from your own provider. Users want the best of both worlds, and they want them to work together."
Learning from past disasters
Interwise has living examples of its unified communications technology coming into play in emergencies and saving lives. As a stroke of good luck -- or good timing -- three months before hurricane Katrina hit, the American Red Cross had purchased a moderate-sized license for Interwise Connect, an unlimited-usage voice, Web and videoconferencing system, for the Red Cross IT training organization. The system had been acquired to help the Red Cross roll out new business and financial software applications to its 800-plus chapters. But with the disastrous fallout from hurricane Katrina, the communications platform took on a more significant role and had to be launched within days.
"The Red Cross usually relies on volunteers, people who aren't necessarily computer savvy, so they needed a huge number of people to come in to train," said Peggy Flynn, director of corporate communications. "They couldn't train down in the area because it was so devastated."
While the Red Cross is always among the first humanitarian organizations to respond to disaster scenes with supplies of money, food, clothing and other essential items, the organization got its first shot at using a collaboration platform to do its job. In addition to extending support to individuals and families, they were able to qualify and document who received support.
When a disaster occurs, the Red Cross typically will disperse volunteers to the location of the disaster and train them to administer relief using their system. Local Red Cross chapters near the event itself play a big role. Owing to the scope of the Katrina emergency, which wiped out Red Cross centers across the Gulf States, normal procedures to enlist and mobilize the volunteers would not work. In a few short weeks, approximately 1,500 case volunteers had to be fully trained and ready to work before they arrived on site.
Like many vendors able to aid in the Katrina response effort, Interwise – in order to handle more Red Cross users -- granted the Red Cross expanded access (at no charge) for Web meetings to be used across the country.
Within days, the American Red Cross began mobilizing individual volunteers at their homes, as well as other chapters that could help outside the disaster zone. The Interwise Connect architecture, which is optimized for minimal bandwidth requirements, enabled the Red Cross to work effectively with volunteers over dial-up and other low-bandwidth connections. And volunteers were able to get online by using the audio device of their choice, including voice-over-the-computer, traditional telephone, cell phone or IP phone.
Interwise is also being deployed by health organizations in many states to support both planning and development for local, state and national response capabilities related to infectious-disease threats. The concept of establishing ways to respond to disease and other biological threats has been active since the mid-1990s, but the events of Sept. 11, the anthrax scares, SARS and other threats have magnified the urgency -- and the funding -- for public-health emergency preparedness.