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20 April 2010

Ash cloud computing

By Andrew Clifford

The disruption caused by the Iceland volcano is a reminder of both the opportunities and responsibilities of IT.

As natural disasters go, the Iceland volcano may seem pretty benign. Here in the UK, we are having a succession of beautiful spring days. The trees are coming into blossom and the birds are singing.

However, the impact of stopping all air travel is vast and serious. Something like 150,000 people are abroad and unable to get back to the UK. Imports and exports are suffering, with a particular impact on fresh produce. Those who fly regularly as part of their job have had to stay at home, or take tortuous land journeys. Many businesses will be impacted because key staff will be unavailable, and planned trips can not take place.

Which brings us to IT. IT is a sort of magic that allows us to overcome barriers, including barriers of physical location. At times like this, IT may not be able to bring loved ones home or deliver fruit and vegetables, but it can alleviate many of the disruptions caused by travel chaos.

The most obvious application of IT is to help people collaborate when they can meet in person, in ways that are richer than just a phone call. This could be video conferencing using Skype, or more advanced tools such as WebEx, YuuGuu and others.

Technologies that help people work from anywhere are vital. Virtual private networks (VPNs) give remote access to corporate networks. Internet-delivered software, including Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), makes remote access to applications much easier, and is particularly valuable for corporate email. In times like this, any application that aids working remotely is a bonus.

Knowing all the good things IT could do is easy. What is much harder is to put the plans in place in advance so that when the next disruption occurs, we are ready.

The obvious answer is to develop effective business continuity plans. However, we need to be more proactive than that. Many of the technologies that would help in this case could not simply be switched on in a disaster because people would not be sufficiently familiar with them to work effectively. They are the sort of thing that the business has to be used to using every day, so that impacts are minimised and disasters averted.

To make this happen, we have to steer our businesses to adopting these sorts of technologies now. The Icelandic volcano is a useful illustration for a business case, but thankfully very rare. Other disruptions, such as weather, industrial action and terrorist alert are much more common.

We also have to put our own IT house in order. We need to think about different ways in which IT services could be disrupted, especially all-important internet connectivity. We need to have effective disaster recovery plans for IT. We need to make sure we can deliver IT services even if IT staff can not get to the office.

Hopefully the disruption from the volcano will end soon. But it is a useful reminder for us all to adopt ways of using IT today that will stop tomorrow's disruptions turning into disasters.

Next: Principles of intra-application integration

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