The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a good reminder that all organizations should consider practice and execution of their contingency plans. In this most recent case, the [Deepwater Horizon] oil platform had an explosion on April 20, resulting in oil spewing out at an estimated 19,000 barrels per day. While some bloggers have argued that BP failed to plan, and therefore planned to fail, I found that hard to believe. How can a billion-dollar multinational company not have contingency plans?
The truth is, BP did have plans. Karen Dalton Beninato of New Orleans' City Voices discusses BP's Gulf of Mexico Regional Oil Spill Response Plan (OSRP) in her article [BP's Spill Plan: What they knew and when they knew it]. A [redacted 90-page version of the OSRP] is available on their website. The plan indicates that it may be 30 days from the time a deep offshore leak reaches the shoreline, giving OSRP participants plenty of time to take action.
(Having former politicians [blame environmentalists] for this crisis does not help much either. At least the deep shore rigs give you 30 days to react to a leak before the oil gets to the shoreline. Having oil rigs closer to shore will just shorten this time to react. Allowing onshore oil rigs does not mean oil companies would discontinue their deep offshore operations. There are thousands of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Extracting oil in the beautiful Alaska National Wildlife Reserve [ANWR] might be safer, it does not eliminate the threat entirely, and any leak there would be damaging to the local plant and animals in the same manner.)
So perhaps the current crisis was not the result of a lack of planning, but inadequate practice and execution. The same is true for IT Business Continuity / Disaster Recovery (BC/DR) plans. In all cases, there are four critical parts:
The planning team needs to anticipate every possible incident, determine the risks involved and the likelihood of impact, and either accept them, or decide to mitigate them. This can include natural disasters (hurricanes, fires, floods) and technical issues (computer viruses, power outages, network disruption).
Mitigation can involve taking backups, having replicated copies at a remote location, creating bootable media, training all of the appropriate employees, and having written documented procedures. IBM's Unified Recovery Management approach can protect your entire IT operations, from laptops of mobile employees, to remote office/branch office (ROBO) locations, to regional and central data centers.
When was the last time you practiced your Business Continuity / Disaster Recovery plan? I have seen this done at a variety of levels. At the lowest level, it is all done on paper, in a conference room, with all participants talking through their respective actions. These are often called "walk-throughs". At the highest level, you turn off power to your data center --on a holiday weekend to minimize impact to operating revenues-- and have the team bring up applications at the alternate site.
As many as 80 percent of these BC/DR exercises are considered failures, in that if a real disaster would have occurred, the participants are convinced they would not have achieved their target goals of Recovery Time Objective (RTO). However, they are not complete failures if they can help improve the plans, help identify new incidents that were not previously considered, and help train the participants in recovery procedures.
The last part is execution. In my career, I have been onsite for many Disaster Recovery exercises as well as after real disasters have occured. I am not surprised how many people assume that if they have plans in place, have made preparations, and have one to three practice drills per year, that the actual "execution" would directly follow. While the book [Execution] by Bossidy and Charan is not focused on IT BC/DR plans per se, it is a great read on how to manage the actual execution of any kind of business plan. I have read this book and recommend it.
If you have not tested out your IT department's BC/DR plans. Perhaps its time to dust off your copy, review it, and schedule some time for practice.