For all the talk about living in a digital age, paper content, from account invoices and HR records to intellectual property, still fuels the business processes of many organizations, even those with sophisticated IT systems. But quick recovery of paper content -- a fragile medium in fire and flood -- is often an afterthought in disaster recovery and business continuity planning. An enterprise content management system, the modern-day descendant of tactical document imaging tools, can act as a safety net in a disaster and even play a strategic role in a disaster recovery program.
At Tulane University, forced to close for only the second time in its 170-year history when Hurricane Katrina hit (the first time was the Civil War), the usefulness of an enterprise content management system became clear to the university's many schools and departments after the fact.
"We were certainly imaging files before Katrina, but they were for tactical business use," recalled Michael Britt, director of administrative services at Tulane University in New Orleans. Invoices from accounts payable, for example, were converted to digital forms for audits but not for routine operation. The university's political structure hindered using enterprise content management (ECM) more strategically. Academic departments tend to operate as their own fiefdoms.
"Some departments would be converted, others would not," Britt said.
Catastrophe can be illuminating. Post-Katrina, a plan to digitally convert, archive and provide access to roughly 6,000 student advising records through the underused ECM system moved into high gear. If another major disaster strikes, Tulane's professors can now access Web-based advisee files and help students figure out how and where to keep learning.
"That makes good business sense, but it also enables us to have that asset should we need to recover in another disaster," Britt said.
Britt is reluctant to prescribe for others from Tulane's post-Katrina lessons, the proportions of that disaster being so great. One of the people who died was Tulane's director of accounts receivable. But the success of the student records migration to Tulane's ECM system "has broken down any previous resistance" to digitizing content. Britt said, and has even spurred the reinvention of entire business processes. "Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a crisis."
How ECM fits (or doesn't) into disaster recovery programs
Eliminating paper is a good first step in improving disaster recovery (DR) capabilities. Converting paper-based processes to electronic forms not only eliminates the risks associated with paper documents, but it also typically makes business processes less error prone and more efficient by reducing or eliminating manual intervention, said Brian Lincoln, senior product line manager for Xerox Corp.'s DocuShare platform, which Tulane uses.
"Enterprise content management systems give you a central repository and the ability to access it over the Internet in a controlled and familiar way," Lincoln said..
An ECM -- which can be thought of as a digital file system combined with a database and a search index -- can be accessed by the raft of the tools designed for high availability and disaster recovery. At Tulane, all of the functions reside on a virtual machine (VM) host running on blade servers in one of the university's data centers, where they are backed up and included in the enterprise disaster recovery program. In addition, the data can be exported for departmental recovery needs. "This would allow us to establish a partial system for an ad hoc management office if needed," Britt said.
Yet ECM and DR are rarely mentioned in the same breath by the 1,500 or so clients that analyst John Morency confers with at Gartner Inc. where he covers DR/business continuity and security risk. And that is a risk.
"In a lot of cases they are so focused on the primary data center, the ERP, the email, the supply chain management applications, that quite often, content management is more of an afterthought," said Morency, research director at the Stamford, Conn.-based consultancy. "Obviously, that is a risk. I see it in spades with state governments. For more often than not, their DR programs do not cover this, and they know it."
ECM as DR tool, business optimization engine
Tulane continues to wring benefits from its ECM platform. In the aftermath of Katrina, DocuShare became the backbone for DR as the system used for capturing, storing and providing Web-based access to all the documents and insurance claims associated with the university's recovery efforts. Many of the ECM projects planned or under way today draw on the expertise developed during that work, Britt said.
Rather than having to restore a whole system, we could just restore a small piece.
Michael Britt, director of administrative services, Tulane University
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, required insurance claims filed on a building-by-building basis, but Tulane lacked a consistent, university-wide list building list. That led to a custom metadata field in an ECM server that is now a 200-item pull-down list.
"Now we can tag something specific to a building. In the future, we will probably take all the engineering and building documents related to renovations for a building and use those tags again," Britt said.
Tulane has a recovery site with SunGard Availability Services LP. Britt said he believes the ECM platform is close to functioning as a disaster recovery pinch hitter in its own right, in the event of another regional catastrophe. Because his team breaks down documents by function, using separate (VM) servers for human resources, accounting, student records, etc., "we would be able to triage what documents we thought were most critical at a given time," he said.
"Rather than having to restore a whole system, we could just restore a small piece," he said.
The question is, if the university closed down, could the team take a backup on disk, for example, and spin up a server, he said. "At this point, it is mental exercise. But we have managed to find ways to make our documents so small for various reasons that we literally think we could spin up a portion of our ECM system in a conference room in a hotel."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.