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Give me POWER: How to keep working when the lights go out

Business continuity is not a dirty word. It's two words. But they're not dirty ones

In the summer of 2001, I began consulting for a travel company in North Yorkshire. A very innovative company, but nothing all that unusual about it in a mechanical sense: a 70-or-so-seat call centre, finance department, sales and marketing people, and the IT department hidden nicely away where people couldn't just casually drop in to ask us idiotic questions. One autumn morning, I drove into the car park and couldn't fail to spot the two socking big orange metal sheds that had appeared outside the loading bay since I'd left the previous week.

“Oh, they're the generators,” I was told by the IT development manager as I made us both a cup of tea. “We have them every winter as the power supply can be a bit wobbly.” We ambled down and he showed me the permanent power connectors in the wall of the building: sure enough, each year a man in a truck would rock up, drop off two generators, plug 'em in, run some tests and clear off until the next spring. It's worth noting at this point that the generators were an addition to the existing power protection, which was a big UPS in the server room and a smaller one under every desk powering each user's PC. (Incidentally, they also had a couple of four-wheel-drive vehicles that could get through the snow to pick up snowed-in staff members).

Wind forward to the start of April 2015 and a fire beneath the streets of Holborn in Central London: an electrucal fault in Victorian-era tunnels around Kingsway damaged an eight-inch gas main that ruptured and erupted, causing a fire that lasted 36 hours.

Main roads and side streets were shut down and patrolled by rather twitchy police sporting high-viz jackets, creating a blockade that rendered buildings inaccessible, while theatres and businesses were closed after the power was turned off.

The streets around Holborn and Covent Garden quickly became crammed full of massive generators, deposited by huge lorries wiggling through the narrow lanes bringing in yet-more Watts in a box. And despite what seemed like a huge infusion of temporary power, it was insufficient for more than basic operations and businesses in this relatively small but high-density fall-out zone remained dark.

Could businesses have avoided being out of commission for so long? And if so, how?

Sometimes you just have to say “no”. Could the big public venues such as theatres have kept on trading with cunning use of generators and replacement power? To be honest, it's unlikely, because it's simply uneconomic: in a city like London where space – even underground – is scarce, it would be unrealistic for a big theatre to fit in a generator, and the cost of buying and maintaining a unit with sufficient capacity would be disproportionate to the amount it'd be used. Add to this the safety issues (it's all very well having the lights on in the theatre but it's a safety problem when you kick the punters out at 22:30 and the streetlights are all dead) and there's really not a lot you can do.

But what about normal businesses? The same can't be said for more traditional businesses, though, and particularly those that work during the day. We've written a lot recently about the benefits of putting your core systems and applications in a data centre rather than the office – not just because of the risk of a freak occurrence like the London power outage, but also because of more normal problems (one never quite knows whether the company on the floor above you is about to catch fire and drown your world with its sprinklers, for example, or whether someone's going to put a digger through your phone lines). I've worked for businesses whose IT directors twitch visibly when anyone suggests locating a system on-premise rather than in a data centre, and that tendency has rubbed off on me over the years.

Moving kit to a data centre isn't the whole story, though, because as our friends in London have discovered lately, you still need the people in your organisation to be able to use them. Which they can't do if they can't get to the office, or if the office is dark and quiet.

Next page: Spreading your risk

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