Geographic Separation as an Element of Disaster Recovery Planning
While it's easy to think of 'disaster recovery' in terms of apocalyptic scenarios, the reality is much more mundane: weather events and related issues are the most likely widespread disasters a firm will ever face. Recent events have brought disaster recovery sharply into focus, with many RIAs activating their contingency plans in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Most discussions about disaster recovery, and most formulated contingency plans, typically focus on office technology. Offsite data replication is one aspect that is always at the top of the list for discussion, as is the expected recovery time if the contingency plan must be activated. Various other aspects of recovery typically are detailed in a firm's contingency plan - alternative meeting places, telephone trees, client communications, and who is responsible for deciding when and under what circumstances a plan will be activated. What frequently is overlooked, however, is a realistic assessment of how a disaster that is severe enough to call for the activation of a contingency plan will affect the personnel who are expected to follow it, and how effective the contingency plan will be as a result.
In a natural disaster, electrical outages are common, and even in larger metropolitan areas where power is restored quickly, outlying areas where personnel typically live may suffer outages long after electricity is restored at the main office site. Land line telephone service also typically suffers, and reliance on cell phones and text messages becomes the norm. Depending on the circumstances of the disaster, travel may be next to impossible - downed trees, damaged roadways, or police activity may make it impractical or impossible for office staff to make their ways to either the main office or the contingent workspace. As battery life dwindles, the connectivity made possible by cell phones and laptops also dwindles, and at some point it may become impossible or impractical to work at or near normal capacity.
What also must be considered is the human element of a disaster. During a major event with widespread damage, attention naturally is focused at home. Employees may be dealing with days-long power outages, lack of heat and hot water, telephone outages, damage to homes and property, or even injuries - and may be unable or unwilling to concern themselves with work. Even the best employees, when faced with such difficulties, may consider work-related issues as secondary to issues that are happening at home. When these stresses are combined with the added difficulty of getting to and from the office, a firm's operations may suffer. If the back-office is left unstaffed (or under-staffed) for just a few days, operations throughout the firm may be adversely affected to a serious extent. Decision-makers cannot be expected to make accurate decisions for clients based on inaccurate data, and administrators cannot properly service accounts without reliable, up-to-date information.
Geographic separation through the outsourcing of key back-office functions is a viable element of a disaster recovery plan that solves many of the problems detailed above. Though power outages throughout the affected area may limit the capacity of in-house employees, a geographically separate back-office can continue to function without interruption as long as the main office or contingent worksite or data center itself is unaffected. While travel throughout the affected area may be restricted, a geographically separate back-office is not affected by these restrictions. In addition, an outsourced back-office is always manned and staffed, and has alternate power sources and contingency plans of its own. Geographic separation of key functions can provide redundancy and stability, and can be an integral part of contingency planning.