Tech Tip: Put an Internet disaster plan in place

By Jonathan Yarden

Our society tends to spend more time and money preparing for natural disasters (e.g., hurricanes) and physical disasters (e.g., fire and, now, terrorist attacks) rather than electronic disasters. What people often fail to realize is that disasters also pose a significant threat to electronic assets—particularly in our ability to communicate and in the value of information itself.

An Internet disaster, either accidental or intentional, could damage or destroy the ability of a company to communicate with the outside world and seriously impact business. For example, a company that is the target of a denial of service attack or has lost its Internet connectivity due to a cut fiber-optic cable is often helpless.

Knowing what to do in these cases can be confusing, but companies should seriously consider the cost of lost productivity due to Internet problems. However, it can be extremely difficult to plan for or recover from an electronic disaster due to the complexity of the Internet.

Planning for a physical threat to a building (such as a fire) and to the employees who work in that building is done with sprinklers, fire alarms, and fire escapes. Similarly, a typical corporate data center is protected by strict access controls and expensive fire-suppression equipment because serious problems could cause a significant loss of business. (This planning occurs not only for the safety of the occupants, but also because of fire codes and insurance requirements.) In addition, most companies plan for power problems by using battery-backed power supplies or even by installing backup generators.

Some companies plan for internal computer system disasters on key assets by using clustering and highly available server systems and by using a disaster recovery vendor. All of this disaster planning is based on the fact that these assets are essential tools of business. Yet it has been my experience that few companies plan for Internet problems even though they consider these systems essential to conduct business—until, of course, the systems stop working.

When there's a problem (such as a mass-mailing worm) that disables a company's e-mail server, this shuts off e-mail. A crashed virus-scanning system or firewall also paralyzes e-mail. A denial of service attack on a gateway router can shut off a company from the Internet completely. By the same token, a fiber cut in Chicago can shut off a company in Cleveland.

That's why I advise companies to prepare for Internet disasters in the same manner they do for physical disasters. Being prepared for Internet disasters requires planning and redundancy on key Internet systems, similarly to how some companies implement highly available systems for internal business needs. This means that companies that depend on the Internet as a communication tool should consider these essential components: multiple Internet gateways, redundant firewall systems, e-mail servers, and virus-scanning systems.

Companies should plan for virtual disasters in the same manner as physical disasters by developing and implementing disaster planning procedures for Internet equipment. If your company is Internet-dependent, make sure you're prepared in the unfortunate event that a disaster occurs.

Jonathan Yarden is the senior UNIX system administrator, network security manager, and senior software architect for a regional ISP.

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