Best practices for emergency preparedness


'Tis the season for emergency preparedness

It’s December, and you know what that means: snow and ice storms, power outages and the need for IT emergency preparedness.

Yes, I know this is not the most festive of topics for the holiday season, but it’s extremely important. And now is a great time to make sure your disaster toolbox is well stocked, before a major calamity strikes.

That doesn’t have to come from Mother Nature, either. As a federal IT manager, you always have to be prepared for the unnatural disaster, too. While cyber attacks really ramp up in the business sector around the holidays, government agencies have to worry about them 365 days a year (and let’s not forget, the 2016 presidential election – a prime time for cyber terrorism – is not that far away). 

The scary thing is that even the idea of creating a disaster preparedness and response plan has been put on the backburner at many government agencies. In fact, according to a federal IT survey by my company, SolarWinds, over 20 percent of respondents said they did not have a disaster preparedness and response plan in place.

So, before the weather gets frightful – increasing the chances that you may experience significant system downtime – make sure you have a plan in place, and follow these best practices:

Continuously monitor the network. Here’s a phrase to remember: “collect once, report to many.” This means installing software that automatically and continuously monitors IT operations and security domains, making it easier for federal IT managers to pinpoint – or even proactively prevent – problems related to network outages and system downtime.

Continuous monitoring can give IT professionals critical data pertaining to network performance, availability and security. This information can help managers detect abnormal behavior much faster than manual processes. Abnormalities can range from rogue devices accessing the network – which could signify an impending attack – to UPS network devices shutting down as a result of a power outage. Continuous monitoring can help federal managers react to these challenges quickly and reduce the potential for extended downtime.

Monitor devices, not just the infrastructure. You can’t just monitor your network and call it a day; you need to keep track of all of the devices that impact it, including desktops, laptops, smartphones and tablets. Heck, these days, even the holiday ham probably has a Wi-Fi port.

For this, consider implementing tools that can track individual devices. First, devise a whitelist of devices acceptable for network access. Then, set up automated alerts that notify you of non-whitelisted devices tapping into the network or any unusual activity. Most of the time, these alerts can be tied directly to specific users. This tactic can be especially helpful in preventing those non-weather-related threats I referred to earlier.

Plan for remote network management. There’s never an opportune time for a disaster, but some occasions are just, well, disastrous. For example, when a blizzard knocks out electricity in your data center and you’re stuck at home looking at two feet of snow thinking, “Yeah, right.” In such cases, you’ll want to make sure you have software that allows you to remotely manage and fix anything that might adversely impact your network. Select software that will allow you to safely power down systems to prevent against data loss or to ensure that systems remain online throughout the emergency.

Remote management technology typically falls into two categories: in-band and out-of-band remote management. Both get the job done for their particular circumstances. In-band allows federal IT managers to connect to a system using a primary interface, whereas out-of-band uses private connections, such as Ethernet. The former requires a primary network to be online, while the latter is used when an individual server is not operational.

Alas, there are some instances where remote management is insufficient. It’s perfectly adequate when your site loses power, or your network goes offline, but in the face of a major catastrophe – massive floods caused by a hurricane, for example – you’ll need onsite management. In many cases, however, remote management tools will be more than enough to get you through some rough spots without you having to get through that snow.

Each of these best practices, and the technologies associated with them, are like backup generators. You may never need to use them, but when and if you do, you’ll be glad you have them at your disposal this winter – or any time of the year.

About the Author

Chris LaPoint is vice president of product management at IT management software provider SolarWinds, based in Austin, Texas.

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