Pandemic Planning and Business Continuity

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There is little doubt that a natural disaster or a global pandemic could strike in the future. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that if there were a pandemic of the H5N1 Bird Flu, as much as 40 percent of the workforce could be out at any one time. Mitigation strategies such as voluntary or mandatory social distancing could last for days or even months and have disastrous financial implications for employees and organizations that did not have a readily available way to remotely access their corporate networks.

Governments and health agencies have been urging organizations to prepare for a pandemic or a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tornado. However, in a recent Deloitte survey of 163 large enterprises, 48 percent of respondents said their companies have not adequately prepared for such disasters.

Authorities are thus stressing the importance of developing pandemic plans that will allow organizations to keep functioning in the event of an emergency. An important part of such plans is ensuring adequate network capacity for all employees, contractors, and partners so they can work from home for weeks or possibly months. One of the most critical (and typically unknown) components of pandemic planning is determining whether or not your service providers – and carriers themselves – are ready for a global pandemic outbreak or unforeseen disaster. Capacity planning, redundancy of operations, security, and overall support need to be tightly integrated to truly create an infrastructure that can continue to operate in the face of a major emergency.

Outsourcing a pandemic readiness solution ensures end users are prepared ahead of time and resources are available if they need them. However, rapidly scaling a network can be an organization’s greatest challenge if it has not done the appropriate due diligence. Service providers can offer economical, customized services that allow networks to scale up rapidly and support hundreds or even thousands of end users working remotely. These providers have developed solution platforms that allow organizations to host SSL VPN gateways, firewalls, and intrusion prevention equipment at regional centers, allowing customers to connect securely to application servers at their corporate data centers over an MPLS infrastructure.

Managed service providers that have access agreements with multiple MPLS service providers can provide another layer of resiliency by leveraging these carriers to intelligently route customer traffic. Simply stated, the ability to leverage and control the flow of traffic across multiple world-class backbones to provide last-mile access connectivity across a wide geographic area is essential to making any successful pandemic plan for multi-national organizations.

In the event a portion of an organization’s network is incapacitated, preventing end users from getting to corporate data centers, managed service providers should be able to exploit multiple data centers for redundancy. Multi-layered connectivity in and out of regional centers provides the highest resiliency and offers the most protection to companies in the event of a pandemic.
With a managed service provider managing the scalability of your network, you can have all key components already in place to not only change the volume of users on your network on a moment’s notice but also how they access it.

Ramping Up Remote Access
When deploying a pandemic plan, it is essential to put all of the pieces in place to allow employees to continue working from remote locations and to ensure your network is scalable. Emergency licensing, global load balancing, and security are key to this process.

Emergency licensing is a terrific insurance policy. Clients pay an upfront fee for pre-installed licenses; when emergency licensing is activated, the number of concurrent users per client gateway can immediately be increased to the maximum allowable on the existing hardware. Even better, emergency licensing fees are a fraction of the cost of permanent concurrent-user licenses. A company’s existing gateway may be licensed for 200 concurrent users, but when emergency licensing is activated, the same gateway could accommodate 2,000 concurrent users.

In the event social distancing is necessary, excess load will occur on a regional scale as workers are forced to work remotely. Depending on how the pandemic spreads, different regions may experience different levels of adverse impact. Load balancing deals with this by dynamically allocating traffic across multiple data centers in the event remote-access capacity adjustments need to be made. Global load balancing dynamically adjusts the load between regional data centers so idle capacity can be used efficiently.

You must not overlook security when planning for a pandemic. Hackers are waiting for opportunities that will leave a network vulnerable and will likely launch attacks when they think they can do the most damage. Organizations will therefore need perimeter firewalls and intrusion prevention to block malicious activity. Security event correlation is another important feature to seek out from your MSP. For example, integrating the SSL VPN, firewall, and IPS with security event correlation enables service providers to make more informed decisions about what constitutes malicious activity and automatically take action to avert attacks.

Economic Benefits

When putting a pandemic plan into place, one of the greatest benefits of a managed approach is the ability to leverage the existing network infrastructure and existing support staff, without having to add capital expenses or additional headcount. Organizations do not want to build out a costly new infrastructure where capacity may sit idle. However, organizations should not do business without a safety net that will let them leverage the infrastructure in place today, assess where and how critical users can fail over, and support an increase in users.

Being prepared does not have to equal high cost. Take the example of a customer deployment that includes a fully redundant and scalable remote access infrastructure for a large manufacturing company with over 50,000 remote users around the world. The organization chose a hosted, cloud-based solution with six regional centers to host an array of dedicated network and security equipment, standardized around the world.

The regional centers are interconnected to multiple Tier 1-ISPs that vary region by region for maximum interconnectivity and diversity. Each center connects directly to the enterprise MPLS network, so each regional center acts and looks like a customer edge on the MPLS wide area network. All the provider’s regional centers are integrated with one another via a multi-carrier MPLS core in the event of a customer circuit failure.

The manufacturer reaps a number of economic benefits from its managed pandemic planning solution:

The company avoided over 80 percent of “idle” pandemic-capacity license costs;
A $2.1 million hardware capital investment was rolled into operational expenses;
The entire rollout, plus management for three years, required zero additional headcount;
The solution required zero footprint on customer premises and data centers.

Organizations can achieve pandemic readiness for as little as 15 percent of the cost of a baseline solution for standard remote access should an epidemic or natural disaster impair a large portion of the workforce. Secure and scalable solutions that allow organizations to build a contingency plan that fits their specific needs can be turned on and off as needed. The benefits of pandemic planning could be vast for organizations that take the time to put plans in place today to avoid a cessation of workforce productivity in the face of a pandemic in the future.

Organizations tasked with this vital responsibility must be prepared in every way possible to prevent, respond to, and recover from large-scale emergencies, and effective communications are essential to this effort. To ensure continuity of operations and enhance recovery efforts, partnering with trusted specialists who can offer relevant expertise, equipment, infrastructure, and services can make the difference when it comes to sustaining business operations in the face of a pandemic.

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