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Volume 27, Issue 3

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Extended Stay - Is Sustainability Testing The Way of the Future?

When the G20 Summit came to Toronto in June 2010, many businesses thought their preparations would be adequate for what lay ahead. They had tested their systems the same way that had been done many times over the previous years. The staff was well-educated on business continuity, and they had verified that employees could work from the alternate work sites that had been set up. In most cases business continuity coordinators and planners thought they had looked at all the possibilities. But, were they truly prepared and ready? This was something new, something different. Very few corporations, if any, had ever done long-term testing before. Even fewer had been forced out of their primary site for so long without there being a disaster of some sort attached. So what was being missed or overlooked? What questions weren’t asked that needed to be asked?

After the summit was over, businesses began to look at the benefits that were created by the inconvenience of the location of the summit. The summit’s central location represented a large impact to a significant portion of businesses in the downtown core of Toronto. Working with the city and the local and federal authorities in an open, direct fashion was something new to many corporations. Access to a significant area of downtown was restricted – in many instances city officials mandated accreditation and IDs. Police were everywhere, movement was difficult and in some instances, buildings were temporarily locked down. Businesses experienced similar conditions that a terrorist event, ice storm, or power outage may have had, only without all of the accompanying devastation. Many professionals discovered being prepared is much more involved than had previously been anticipated. In fact, working off-site for a week required many more hours of preparation. Non-traditional items popped up that had not been previously considered.

New Approach to Testing

Traditional disaster recovery testing has generally entailed bringing staff to the off-site location, restoring applications, asking users to sign on, verifying data, and verifying that individuals can do their jobs from the remote location. Once this is done, they go home. Other than planning for the most basic, rudimentary needs, traditional testing does not explore the planning of a long-term outage. That is not to say that traditional testing does not serve a useful purpose, as it plays a vital role. Traditional testing provides education into the world of business continuity as well as applications verification, phone re-direction, network testing, etc. A more robust type of traditional testing will also include verification of call-tree notification, life, and safety drills. These are tests that ensure the business unit or corporation can survive in the most basic operational form.

Sustainability testing is a new, much more robust way to look at alternate site testing. Instead of the traditional single-day alternate site test where staff members work off-site for the day, staff will work off-site for three to five days. This not only ensures the technology works but also helps to account for everything an individual needs to do his or her job. Sustainability planning is much more intensive, and it is highly recommended that technology support be brought in very early in the planning stages.

Mental preparation for the staff who will be working off-site is also important. Having to work for a prolonged period in a new location that is not likely to have all the usual amenities may be difficult for some to grow used to. Arrange to have two or three meetings with the assigned staff and be prepared to answer questions you may not have necessarily considered. Open communication channels with the assigned staff is important as these individuals are generally experts in their jobs and may recognize the need for additional items that have not been thought of by contingency planners.

Having staff work off-site for three to five days is much more involved than the standard one day off-site test. Business continuity coordinators need to consider and address new items. For example, is there enough drinking water available? Are there enough supplies, forms, pens, and paper available for prolonged periods? Is the staff prepared to work at a different location for a week? Can the technology handle it? Can the support staff handle the added workload? Do nearby hotel rooms need to be booked? Is there food available nearby? All the planning that goes into sustainability testing, if properly documented, also can be used in planning for a return to home after a real-life disaster or event.

A number of different barriers for sustainability testing exist. These include unfamiliarity of the site, management not wanting staff to be away from the office for that length of time, having to provide technical support at two locations simultaneously, and longer planning periods (especially for the initial test). Explain the overall benefits to management, hold meetings with staff, and work with technical support early on. Planning early and keeping an open mind will help to overcome any roadblocks that may present themselves. Getting past the first test, following up with staff to address any issues in a timely manner, as well as providing proven results will go a long way in strengthening the need for sustainability testing.

The Ever-Important Management Buy-In

If management strongly believes in business continuity, then selling the benefits of sustainability testing should not be difficult. Proving to management that the business can handle a long-term outage, that everything has been accounted for and looked after, and that staff understand what management expects of them, will go a long way to boosting the importance of business continuity and sustainability testing. Management will rest much easier at night knowing that everything has been looked after and that the ability to function during a long-term outage has been proven.

The option of inviting those dreaded auditors and/or regulators now becomes a positive position in which to be. Showing them that the business is more than capable of being out of its primary site for an extended period of time is an enviable position in which to be.

It is widely known that companies do not want to spend a lot of money on business continuity programs, because they do not make money. However, if clients can be told that a company not only tests and maintains their business continuity plans, they also test it for long-term sustainability, would that client not feel more secure in dealing with that company? If that helps to keep a client happy, then how much is that worth to the company?


With the proper amount of planning and preparation, sustainability testing is the way of the future. For businesses to be successful and maintain their competitive edge, accurate planning is a necessity. Businesses must be able to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that they can survive no matter what is thrown at them. In the future, regulatory bodies and auditors will all be looking at sustainability testing as the true measure for an effective business continuity program. To complete the testing picture, traditional disaster recovery testing (fail-over, back-up/restore, technology testing) must also continue, along with the ongoing education of staff and management.

With a program that includes both traditional testing and sustainability testing, there is very little that a company could not handle in even the worst case of adversity.

Craig Nicks is the global business continuity coordinator for BMO Capital Markets. He has more than 15 years of experience in business continuity working in retail, wireless, military, and banking industries as well as for a business continuity vendor.