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The events of Sept. 11 in New York and Washington placed a spotlight on disaster recovery initiatives and made disaster and continuity planning hot topics.

Perhaps your shop already has a recovery plan that covers the loss of a server or a network failure, but what you would do if one of your external services was shut down by a disaster?

Many service providers, such as an Internet service provider (ISP) or an application service provider (ASP), have their own disaster recovery plans, but it’s up to you to determine if their plan will work before a disaster occurs.

Here are some tips IT managers can use to help decide if a service provider is ready for a crisis.

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Look for physical evidence
Assessing a provider’s preparedness can be as easy as looking at the provider’s business history or any other physical element of the business.

A physical element is anything you can see on a piece of paper. For example, you can view statistics about a provider’s amount of downtime during a past disaster or the number of customer service complaints the provider accrued during a previous crisis.

“First analyze how fast did the company get the service back? If the service was restored instantly, then that’s usually a good sign [of] a company that has a very good disaster recovery plan in place,” said Christian Ranno, the vice president of IT with Total Support, Inc., a business infrastructure solutions firm.

Likewise, the strength of the provider’s bottom line can tell you a lot about the ability of the provider to react quickly to its customers and their needs, said Ranno.

What you should be asking yourself
A strong bottom line is a good indication that the provider is serious about the service business and intends to stay in the game. You have to ask what their balance sheet looks like, said Scott Howitt, the CIO of BenefitMall, an employee-benefits exchange service.

But the provider’s bottom line or the stats on their balance sheet are only two physical aspects that you should use to assess the provider’s business model.

Ranno suggests that you also ask these questions to get an idea about the provider’s other strengths and capabilities:

  • What does the provider’s balance sheet look like?
  • How long has the provider been in the market?
  • How wide is the provider’s market presence?
  • What is the state of their network backbone?

“All these kind of things give you an idea as to the strengths these companies have to provide their service and to provide some method of disaster recovery,” said Ranno.

Look at examples of past disasters
Looking at the provider’s financial and business strengths can provide a good indication of how they are prepared to weather a disaster.

For example, if you have offices on the West Coast but use an ISP in Dallas, you need to know how long would it take for the ISP to get back on track if a tornado whipped through the Dallas area and destroyed the ISPs’ communications hub. If all of the ISPs eggs are in one basket, so to speak, it may be a long time. An ISP with ample resources and a set disaster plan could overcome this scenario.

But a provider’s physical strengths may also affect how the provider treats customers, how they attract technical and network support partners, and the strength of their own service network.

A provider with a strong bottom line and financial security can have a maximum point of presence (POP) or multiple offices and data centers. Multiple locations can serve as service and data backups if a disaster occurs.

Other benefits from a strong bottom line include the following:

  • The provider uses separate power grids.
  • The provider can colocate data centers and communication hubs.
  • They have redundant lines into a data center in case one line fails.
  • They partner with larger providers.

These benefits offer an element of redundancy to a provider’s service. Redundancy in a disaster is crucial. Any type of a disaster could wipe out a provider with only one office or hub. If a provider uses only one center, or what Howitt calls a “Telco hotel,” you run the risk that your service could be wiped out for hours or even days, said Howitt. “It’s important to look for ISPs that operate multiple backbone networks,” he said.

Also, look for providers who partner with larger service providers. “Look at the solid relationship the provider has forged with someone like SunGuard or an IBM Global Service or a ComDisco in providing the technical and network support in the case of a finite physical disaster,” said Greg Benton, the director of business development for Agilera, a full-service business solutions ASP.