Developing a wide area network disaster recovery plan for civil unrest

Egypt's recent Internet shutdown highlights the need for some WAN managers to develop a wide area network disaster recovery plan for branches in areas at risk of civil unrest.

When the Egyptian government recently ordered Internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile carriers to shut down Web access across the country, it didn't just prevent protesters from posting to Facebook and Twitter. Businesses were cut off from the world, too. Cairo-based branches and regional offices of global enterprises lost wide area network (WAN) connectivity, highlighting the need for some WAN managers to develop a wide area network disaster recovery plan for offices operating in regions vulnerable to chronic or sudden civil unrest.

Ernest Ostro was in Cairo the day the protests started, helping set up a new branch office for Pathfinder International, a global nonprofit which provides reproductive health services throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

"When Egypt [got] completely cut, there [wasn't] really any alternative for where we could reroute traffic," said Ostro, Pathfinder's director of information services.

IT pros are accustomed to preparing the WAN for environmental disasters or equipment failures, and a wide area network disaster recovery plan for political turmoil isn't wildly different, according to Ray Barber, senior executive and consultant at decision/analysis partners LLC, who is designing the first IT and telecom infrastructure for a city in the West Bank.

"Political unrest is just one additional factor to consider because you always have environmental issues and things like floods, earthquakes or tornados that [can affect WAN connectivity]," said Barber, who has also consulted clients building networks in Mauritius, Guatemala and Indonesia. "A lot of it is common sense -- best practices that you could use anywhere." 

A wide area network disaster recovery plan for civil unrest

Pathfinder has one established branch office in Cairo, and Ostro traveled to the city last month to set up a second one. He arrived there the day the protests began. The government flipped the Internet kill switch a few days later.

Unlike more volatile parts of the world where Pathfinder operates, the nonprofit's Cairo branch had always enjoyed stable WAN connection. Ostro had deployed WAN optimization and hardware-based virtual private network (VPN) gear that connected back to his data center over the Internet. 

However, Ostro's wide area network disaster recovery plan ensured that the Egyptian government's decision to shut down the Internet wouldn't leave Pathfinder's branches completely isolated from the WAN. Most remote users can use dial-up modems as a last resort, and branches in chronically unstable areas are outfitted with satellite phones and data connections.

Most of Pathfinder's employees are also accustomed to working offline, Ostro said. Pathfinder eventually shut down its Cairo office for safety reasons during the protests, but users had been able to complete some work using landline phones and local resources.

"We face versions of this problem all the time in that we often work in places that don't have [reliable] network connectivity," Ostro said. "From our point of view, it's not such a huge crisis…We're not so driven by communications that we can't function without it. We're not Facebook."

Ken Vescovi, network engineer for a scientific, technical and business consulting nonprofit, supports a small population of users working on a government project in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The users share a 256 Kbps connection, which uses satellite for its final hop and suffers 800 milliseconds of latency going back to the data center in Pennsylvania.

Because of the latency between the Kandahar branch office and his data center, Vescovi has deployed local file and application servers in Afghanistan. Users rely on the WAN mostly to access the centralized email server and the Internet. These practices also are the cornerstones of his wide area network disaster recovery plan for the office.

"If they lose connectivity, the users are savvy enough to contact the ISP. The ISP has local support and they’ll work out something easily with the satellite link," said Vescovi, who spoke on the condition his organization not be identified. "In the meantime, with the servers being local and applications running locally, they can still do their work and execute their tasks."

Is this kind of wide area network disaster recovery plan worth the cost?

Many enterprises will not need a sophisticated wide area network disaster recovery plan to prepare for events like what happened recently in Egypt, according to networking consultant Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp.

"The people who are vulnerable to data network outages are the companies whose remote locations perform transaction services -- banks and credit card companies immediately come to mind," Nolle said. "In most other industries, the organization would say, 'If we lose communications because of social disorder like Egypt, we'll tell our people not to come to work anyway.'"

Preparing the WAN for civil unrest can be expensive and sometimes ineffective, Nolle said. If a WAN manager decides to forego Internet VPNs and pay seven to nine times more for a private Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) VPN service, users may still be denied access because service providers often run MPLS over the same backbone infrastructure as Internet traffic, he said.

Vescovi uses no backup links in Kandahar due to the cost of connectivity and the small number of users in the office. His quarter-meg circuit already costs $1,900 per month. 

"That’s probably the main reason we run the servers locally," he said. "The ISP has been pretty reliable. It's not like it's down days at a time. It's down for an hour at max, which is pretty tolerable over there."

Ostro also said he works to balance needs with "reasonable cost" in his wide area network disaster recovery plan. If civil unrest as widespread as that in Egypt occurs near one of his branches, he said it's likely the office would be closed anyway.

"It's definitely something we're considering with every new office we open as a [wide area network] disaster recovery plan, but I don’t have a plan to go through every office we have and insist they have satellite backup for each one," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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