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Coping with unexpected events – how to build a resilient IT network

12 March 2020

In the first few months of 2020 we’ve had mass flooding across the UK and now COVID-19, the coronavirus, is causing the government to consider including a work from home policy as part of their nationwide ‘battle plan’.

how to build resilience into your IT network, drink spilled on keyboard

As companies react and adapt, the resilience of their IT networks will become a major factor in their contingency planning. What will employees need to work from home? Will your existing network allow for mass remote access? And if key staff are off sick, will you be able to manage and maintain your IT infrastructure?

Disasters put additional strain on IT networks

What would happen if your office was closed for several weeks, by flooding or a wide range of other disasters?

  • Is your network setup for remote working?
  • Do your staff have the equipment to work from home? Can you afford to buy them all laptops, and ensure they’ll all secure?
  • Your IT network may experience further strain due to house-bound customers spending more time online, or people also hit by the same disaster trying to cope. How will you cope with increased demand?

What can you do to alleviate that strain?

Add computer power

Given all these pressures, it may be time to rethink your existing IT infrastructure. Depending on your current system, you’ll need to think about how you are going to scale up – or should you be scaling out?

Adding to the capacity of your existing servers (vertical scaling) will give you more power, quickly and simply. However, there is a point at which you can no longer scale up, which is why vertical scaling is a short-term option. Once you have reached this point, you need to add more servers, (horizontal scalingnor scaling out), which spreads the load and increases your potential for long-term growth. This is more complicated and more expensive, but may give you a lower total cost of ownership.

Both vertical and horizontal scaling can be carried out in-house, if you have the skills and the right storage conditions. Alternatively, you could move all or some of your tasks to the cloud – public or private – and outsource the logistics of scaling to someone with the time, space and expertise to do it for you.

Consider connectivity

Having processing power is great, but it doesn’t guarantee you successful connectivity. Your two main choices for ensuring employees can access all this power are VPN and Cloud.

VPN (Virtual Private Network) will provide you with a secure connection (end-to-end encryption) between your servers and your employees. Ensuring your data, communications and intellectual property are all protected. It is relatively complicated to set up and manage– not possible last minute – and can be expensive. The other factor is lag time, which can be frustrating for your employees.

Cloud computing is another solution for home workers, but it is not simply a question of uploading files. If your current software applications are locally run and your staff don’t have access to those computers, you will also need to move those applications to the cloud.  Cloud doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption, but tends to be faster and, if you use public cloud, can be managed fairly quickly; if the government decided on Friday morning that everyone should be working from home, by Monday you could probably make that happen with Cloud.

[Read our explanation of different public cloud options]

Someone needs to look after the IT network

The other thing to consider in light of current events is the availability of your IT personnel. If they are unable to work, whether because access is cut-off or because a quarantine is in place, they cannot physically attend to your IT network. How would you keep your system online if there was an issue or a cyber attack?

Add a support network

Even if you have an IT team within your business, it is worth finding an IT support company that will be on-hand in the event of an emergency – like your in-house team being unavailable for any reason. If your computer systems are already housed in a data centre, make sure you’ve chosen a provider that offers Remote Hands to carry out maintenance and management tasks on your behalf.

Put your servers somewhere safe

If you still keep your servers in the cupboard downstairs, it might be time to think of moving them. Definitely off the ground floor (flood risk!), but possibly out of the building altogether. Apart from the fact that events like flooding or virus outbreak could prevent you from accessing your computer systems, there are many other reasons to choose colocation.

Your systems will be safer and more secure in a purpose-built, temperature-controlled environment that is designed to withstand power failures and a disruptions to internet connections. A good data centre not only provides backup power and connectivity, but also backup personnel – those Remote Hands – if you need them. 

Carry out an inventory of spare parts and devices

Events like flooding, snow, virus outbreak and civil disorder can have an impact on supply chains. And since we never know what’s around the corner, it makes sense to keep up your spare parts stock all year round. Make sure you have enough on the shelf that the parts are there when you need them – and you’re not left paying over the odds and waiting weeks for new components.

Also, check that you have enough devices for your employees to work from home, as these will also become difficult and expensive to source.

Implement best practice cyber hygiene and preventive maintenance

The resilience of your IT network relies on all users implementing best practice cyber hygiene and on the IT department being proactive about maintenance.

Contingencies are good practice even in normal situations. Check that your backup system is working and consider how else you might secure data – perhaps by storing your backup somewhere else entirely and regularly archiving data sets as an additional safeguard.

Contingency planning is best done way in advance – not left until the supermarkets are running out of loo roll. 

Keep calm – mistakes happen when people are stressed

Of course, damage doesn’t necessarily have to be caused by natural disasters. In an environment where everyone is under pressure due to staff sickness and an economic blip like that caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, mistakes are more likely to occur. Feeling properly prepared will help alleviate that stress and ensure that any mistakes can be rectified.

Working from home works best if it is planned

Whether your hand is forced by the government or a natural disaster, not being able to use the office and your IT network as usual can create huge upheaval. Preparing in advance ensures optimum resilience in the face of a crisis – whatever form that crisis takes!

Ensure that you listen to and support your IT staff, who will be instrumental in keeping your business running while the office is closed or short-staffed. And to maintain strong resilience make sure you are:

  • Keeping your critical IT infrastructure out of harm’s way
  • Maintaining your backup system
  • Educating staff about cyber hygiene (as well as regular hygiene!)

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