Earthquake fears prompt business continuity

Planning for the worst case means keeping communications lines open and planning for a vast amount of IT redundancy.

SAN FRANCISCO--On April 18, 1906, San Francisco was rocked by an earthquake that destroyed large swathes of the city and claimed the lives of more than 3,000 inhabitants of the Bay Area.

One resident, the author Jack London, wrote at the time: "San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories...Its industrial section is wiped out. Its business section is wiped out. The factories and warehouses, the great stores and newspaper buildings...are all gone."

A century later, a bigger, bolder, rebuilt and more resilient San Francisco is more important than ever. Now it sits near the heart of the global IT industry and serves as a major world financial center. But it remains well aware of the terrible potential that exists along the San Andreas fault.

The vast skyscrapers downtown may now be built to withstand huge pressures, but what about the infrastructure and the systems that keep modern business ticking--and the people who must be able to access them? Business continuity and disaster recovery are serious issues for all organizations in the Bay Area.

Barry Cardoza, head of business continuity contingency planning and disaster recovery at Union Bank of California, which is based in downtown San Francisco, told that earthquakes are a major consideration in the area but only as part of a complex patchwork of worst-case scenario planning--which includes everything from pandemics to terrorist attacks and acts of civil disorder.

"You have disasters that you can see coming, and you've got disasters that you can't see coming," Cardoza said, "and an earthquake is an example of (the latter). And you don't know how bad it's going to be until it hits."

As such, the bank must have processes in place ahead of such an event to mitigate the threat. Simply reacting is not a strategy. The contingency department must also understand every aspect of the business and weigh downtime for each in terms of financial and reputational damage.

Stock traders, for example, might need to be at their most active in the wake of a disaster.

"If they can't react when the markets are impacted," Cardoza said, "then that could put you out of business. They might normally be turning over millions, but the losses could be in the billions."

Multiple data centers in diverse locations, mirrored sites that can take over at the flick of a switch, "hot sites"--where staff can walk in and start working exactly as they would if they were in their normal location--and a vast amount of redundancy are also key to business continuity planning, said Cardoza, who is a member of the Bay Area Recovery Coalition with a number of peers from other major banks.

"We have real-time mirroring between data centers," he added. "It's no longer a question of how long will it take us to back up from tape. It's a matter of minutes not hours once we switch over."

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