IT Basics 5: Business continuity

How to keep your IT systems working when the worst happens, by IT consultant John Dryden

John Dryden
John Dryden

IT is the life blood of any modern charity, linking its head, heart and essential organs. If it stops flowing, things will instantly seize up.

This is especially true for international charities, for whom email is the most practical way to communicate with far-flung colleagues. Where staff are operating in different time zones and remote locations across the developing world, it can sometimes be the only way to communicate regularly.

For example, an international medical charity we work with has 1,400 staff spread across the globe. On an average day its London-based team send and receive more than 11,000 emails – some of them involving life-or-death medical decisions.

For them, and for most charities, a day without email would be all but unthinkable. But IT systems can be disrupted by attacks from viruses or hackers, or physical events such as fire or flood.

The art of keeping the wheels on a charity’s IT operation, named business continuity after its private sector roots, is as delicate as it is essential.

Traditionally it has been one of the most complex and expensive IT projects for a charity. But it has been made much simpler and cheaper by the advent of cloud technology.

For years the most common solution was to build a physical back-up – a spare set of everything, which would be switched on if the primary infrastructure failed. That’s a lot of money to spend up front on something you might never use.

Now it’s possible to effectively rent a back-up system from a cloud provider. This obviates the need for big capital expenditure, and the system can easily be expanded or scaled back as required.

Depending on the amount of down time you’d be willing to accept, cloud providers Amazon and Microsoft Azure allow you to switch to their standby servers only in the event of a disaster with your primary system. You pay for their servers only when you’re using them – which with luck will be never.

But for your really critical IT functions, where even a few minutes of down time would be unacceptable, you will need to back up your data as you go. This raises the more difficult technical challenge of getting your data to the remote site in near real time.

Microsoft and the cloud specialist VMware have built automated replication (where data is automatically saved to your back-up server) into many of their products, but to build a back-up system that can guarantee near-zero down time is still expensive.

Ultimately, however, as more charities move their entire IT systems to cloud-based services such as Microsoft 365 and Google Apps, the need to buy elaborate business continuity packages separately is receding.

The best cloud-based Software as a Service packages increasingly have business continuity built into them, automatically backing up data – either in the same data centre that hosts the primary server or, better still, in multiple locations so the risk is spread.

So cloud technology has made ensuring business continuity cheaper and easier, but the same guiding principles still apply. The more bullet-proof you want your protection, the more you’re likely to have to pay.

John Dryden is the chief technology officer at the charity IT specialist itlab

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