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IT Faces the Pandemic

By Peter Varhol

I just returned from international travel. It can be disconcerting to see people in airports wearing surgical masks as a protection against flu germs. It makes you consider whether we are facing something far more serious than a few sniffles on the plane or a few days struggling with a cold.

We have not experienced a serious flu outbreak in my lifetime, and we might think that the modern world is protected from such outbreaks. The jury is still out.

In 1918, according to Wikipedia, the Spanish flu pandemic (a cousin of today’s H1N1 virus) is estimated to have killed anywhere from 50 to 100 million people worldwide, and a full 500 million were infected (or about a third of the population of the Earth at that time). This pandemic lasted from 1918 to 1920.

Today we have H1N1. A year ago it was bird flu, a strain that caused millions of chickens to be destroyed, along with several human deaths as the illness mutated to become a human infection.

It is unlikely that any such pandemic would drive industry or business completely dormant; work still has to get done. But it would likely change the nature of how we conduct business for a short period of time, which impacts our computer systems. Employees might be unwilling or unable to come to work, and contractor-provided support services might be sporadic or unavailable. It might even be difficult to get gasoline for commuting or even food, although such shortages are more likely to be sporadic and localized.

But our work won’t stop so easily. If we can’t deliver new designs, fix flaws, or analyze design characteristics, then the entire business suffers. We need the ability to continue being productive, at least at some level, in the face of a problem such as a flu pandemic. At the same time, it’s important to safeguard the health of those who are working.

The answer is a fully distributed IT system, complete with automated backups and recovery sites. First, most of us work as a part of one or more teams, and those teams have to be preserved as they work from other locations, such as from home or a remote office. This means a strong virtual private network (VPN), providing authorized users the ability to reach the files they need that are stored on the network.

It goes without saying that all engineers need a computer at home or at an alternate site to enable them to do their normal work. Having access to a laptop or a capable computer at home means that engineers can continue work without missing a beat. Further, they need a means of instant communications, whether it is instant messaging, Web cameras, or Web conferencing.

One thing that many organizations fail to consider is floating licenses for critical software. It’s not enough to provide engineers with powerful laptops or home computers if they can’t use their software. Together with the VPN and all engineering files and documents stored on network servers, this should enable all engineers to access the data they need to complete projects.

The last requirement is the ability of IT to keep the network and servers going, even if they aren’t able to come into the office. This means a strong network management system that enables full remote administration.

If your organization doesn’t have a plan to continue working if team members are unavailable or the usual business services become unreliable, it’s time to draw one up. Any business that wants to be successful has to plan for anything that can go wrong. And while we haven’t had a pandemic for 90 years, you have to think it is both possible, and at some point inevitable.

Contributing Editor Peter Varhol covers the HPC and IT beat for DE. His expertise is software development, math systems, and systems management. You can reach him at DE-Editors@deskeng.com.

About Peter Varhol

Contributing Editor Peter Varhol covers the HPC and IT beat for Desktop Engineering. His expertise is software development, math systems, and systems management. You can reach him at DE-Editors@deskeng.com.
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