Bird flu: IT pros planning for worst

Preparing corporate data center operations for an outbreak of the avian flu requires long-term planning.

If the avian flu hits the United States, the IS department for the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore could have a problem.

If the avian flu hits the United States, the IT department for the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore could have a problem.

The department sits across the street from the Johns Hopkins Hospital, where a high number of infected patients could be treated and where a large percentage of the staff travel widely as part of their jobs, increasing the likelihood they could come back infected.

"Our biggest fear is that we won't be able to get back to our data center for an extended amount of time, so we set up systems that would make it accessible remotely," says Ross McKenzie, IS director for the school of public health.

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The school has addressed remote control capabilities for PCs and servers by buying 550 GoToMyPC licenses that let network administrators log on via Web-based clients. "Every IT function, except maybe the physical help desk, can be performed remotely at this point," McKenzie says.

Unfortunately, industry experts speculate that, unlike the Bloomberg School, many IS departments are not planning far enough ahead for an outbreak of the avian flu.

Of 167 government workers across eight federal departments, 44% don't know how they should react to a flu emergency, according to a poll by Telework Exchange, an online forum trying to quantify how much teleworking goes on in the federal government.

A survey last month of 300 Minnesota business officials found most thought a flu pandemic would significantly affect their businesses, but only 18% had preparedness plans in place. The poll, sponsored by the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, found that close to two-thirds of respondents said they were prepared or somewhat prepared to move employees to remote locations or let them work at home, while 29% said they were not prepared.

The H5N1 influenza virus, which originated in Asia, could hit the United States this fall, potentially causing an epidemic, the nation's chief avian flu coordinator warned last week. It can be transmitted from birds to humans via close contact, but not from human to human - yet.

Flu experts say mutations are almost certain to create a strain that supports human-to-human transmission. The resultant pandemic will make between 75 million and 90 million people sick in the United States, with as many as 2 million deaths, according to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office.

Some businesses, such as White Electronic Designs in Phoenix, have the basics of plans in place. "We've given consideration to the avian flu situation as part of our enterprise risk management program," says Jim Kritcher, vice president of corporate IT for the firm.

He says plans call for asking workers returning from areas where flu has struck to work from home for a period to avoid infecting others at corporate sites. And the company would conduct as much work as possible remotely. "We would certainly be susceptible, especially since we have employees traveling to Asia on a regular basis. We do a significant amount of manufacturing in China," he says.

For many companies, VPNs are the mainstay for their disaster plans. "It's the lynchpin of our remote access," says Paul Beaudry, director of technical services for JRI, the largest agribusiness company in Canada, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The company has dual Aventail SSL VPN gateways installed at its headquarters that support 800 employees for accessing e-mail and about 25 work-at-home employees. In the event of flu, that number would rise significantly, and the company would buy more VPN licenses and turn up more applications.

The IT staff of 15 has been trained to increase the number of applications available through the gateway and to increase the resources employees are authorized to reach over the VPN, Beaudry says. So even if some of the IT staff is out of work, someone will be able to set up the VPN for those able to work from home.

Inoculate your business

The threat of an avian flu epidemic preventing large numbers of employees from coming to work means corporate IT departments need to figure out now how they will keep workers connected. Some tips:
Screen employees who travel to known outbreak areas before they return to the workplace to avoid spreading infection.
Beef up audio and video conferencing to avoid sending workers to regions where outbreaks have occurred.
Identify workers who may be added to the remote access rolls in the event of an outbreak and make sure they have the gear and authorization they need to work from home.
Estimate the increased load on remote access gear and upgrade accordingly.
Tune help desks so they can deal efficiently with a likely increased workload.
Stage dry runs of procedures that would kick in when there is an outbreak.

Similarly, Kritcher says White Electronic Designs will use its Cisco VPN concentrators to support remote access as well as thin clients to access applications remotely.

The concentrators can scale to handle extra concurrent users, he says, but during an emergency, the number of people trying to connect via the VPN could strain WAN connections and result in slow response time or failure to connect. "So we are testing procedures to reconfigure the WAN links such as wireless IP currently used for failover and redeploy them to support additional VPN traffic," Kritcher says.

In the case of the Johns Hopkins health school, VPNs were too expensive, McKenzie says. "We didn't want something that could be open to everyone when we weren't entirely sure, considering the situation, who or how many would need to use it," he says.

Such planning is essential, according to Gartner, which has published a report titled "Prepare Now for a Coming Avian Influenza Pandemic."

"Enterprises should take the widespread agreement on the strong likelihood of a pandemic . . . as a signal to take immediate action," says Ken McGee, the Gartner analyst who wrote the report. "By mid-2006, [companies should] have in place completed pandemic/IT response plans."

He recommends preparing lists of the most important knowledge workers on staff and figuring out how they can work from home for extended periods. In addition to network access, they'll need the ability to conference with co-workers, customers and business partners, McGee says.

Still, there is only so much IT executives can do, Beaudry notes. "You've got a human fear factor, and you may have people reacting in a way you couldn't predict," he says. "You may have a quarantine situation and business can be impacted - there's no question. But you have to keep the business running."

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.