Midmarket firm harnesses email communication as part of disaster plan

After evaluating voice, text messaging and the Web, an organ donor firm in the heart of New Orleans decides email is the most reliable way to communicate during a disaster.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency (LOPA) lost both its landlines and its cell phone service, effectively isolating all of its agents. "We mostly communicated via voice, and our 'disaster plan' consisted of a phone tree notification list," which was useless under the circumstances, said Max Prather, the agency's director of quality and information services. "Our people were scattered,...

and with no communications, we couldn't bring them together or put them to work elsewhere."

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This was simply unacceptable for LOPA, which supplies transplant centers and hospitals with donated organs and tissue. "Our work is urgent," Prather said. "We need to be able to communicate with our agents, 24/7, in order to serve our customers effectively. Quite simply, being able to go on working during a disaster saves lives."

After evaluating voice, text messaging and the Web, Prather and his team chose email as the most viable way to communicate during a disaster. In the event of a disaster, employees could access email "pretty much anywhere they were evacuated to," Prather said. In contrast, if LOPA's landlines are down, "even if employees can gain access to a phone, there's no way they could inform us of how to reach them."

So LOPA deployed Neverfail Ltd.'s Continuous Availability Suite, which ensures near-instant access via email during a disaster, should its Microsoft Exchange server fail. The agent-based software continually replicates software and database changes at the byte level to a remote backup site. Meanwhile, it monitors server activity. If it perceives an incipient hardware or software failure, it alerts a human operator, who switches users over to the backup system in a matter of minutes. "Neverfail can do it automatically, but we traded a little recovery time in order to retain control," Prather said.

Neverfail's suite suited LOPA on several fronts. First, it required a minimum of equipment and bandwidth. Second, it was relatively inexpensive and simple to set up. Recovery is seamless to users. Furthermore, the product supports a range of key applications, Prather said. The agency plans to have Neverfail replicate its Oracle database server in Dallas "so we can reduce downtime during updates."

The Neverfail suite paid for itself in about two years, mainly by enabling LOPA to take Exchange off Data Protection service and save $500 a month, Prather explained.

Austin, Texas-based Neverfail belongs to a group of vendors that address disaster recovery and prevention at the application level, said John Morency, research director at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. The group includes CA Inc., with XOsoft; Double-take Software Inc.; and InMage Systems Inc. While more traditional offerings respond to system failures, products from these vendors can "probe deeply" into an application's inner workings; spot and address small, incipient problems, like a corrupted index; and fix them before they become serious, Morency said. Because they are application-specific, such products address a limited but growing list of critical software products, such as Microsoft Exchange and SQL Server, customer relationship management applications and offerings from VMWare Inc.

We mostly communicated via voice, and our 'disaster plan' consisted of a phone tree notification list.
Max Prather
director of quality and information servicesLouisiana Organ Procurement Agency
The near-continuous availability such products provide has become increasingly crucial to midrange firms in the past eight to 10 years, Morency said. Between 2007 and 2008, the volume of Gartner client inquiries about recovery and continuity went up 55%, he added. Many of those queries came from midrange firms, that, like everyone else in an increasingly global and Web-based business environment, can no longer afford to lose critical tools like email communication for even a couple of hours, Morency said.

Hurricane Gustav gave LOPA a chance to test Neverfail. Well in advance of the August storm, the agency switched email operations over to its backup site in northern Louisiana -- only to learn that Gustav was bypassing New Orleans and heading right for the secondary facility.

"We were afraid that site would go down, so we ended up switching back to the New Orleans site," which never went down, Prather said. The switchover went seamlessly and smoothly, he added. "All our users were out of the office, accessing email remotely. We were able to reach everyone and keep them informed, and go on working."

Elisabeth Horwitt is a contributing writer based in Waban, Mass. Write to her at editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.

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