Manufacturers in Developing Countries Experience IT Disaster Recovery Planning Challenges

Feb. 18, 2009
Power outages and climate conditions present difficulties in disaster recovery planning.

Disaster recovery planning is an important part of operations for world-class companies. Plans typically outline contingency procedures for disruptions related to power, water, telecommunications and other critical services. Increasingly, disaster recovery planning addresses one of the most volatile yet important resources for business continuity: preserving the integrity of data. Real-time data availability and seamless operation of information technology systems are no longer the exclusive concern of "knowledge-based" or service companies, but greatly affect manufacturing firms as well.

As manufacturing operations increasingly relocate or expand to developing countries, companies are faced with operating under precarious conditions. Where it might receive little attention under the relatively stable conditions in the U.S., disaster recovery planning is of paramount importance in developing countries. This is especially true for information technology. Because risk is greater for general infrastructure outages, there is an increased chance for IT disruptions and data loss. While most companies that operate in developing countries make use of auxiliary power systems, when it comes to dealing with the fragility of data, they face other unique environmental circumstances that go beyond the "safety net" of backup power.

Developing countries exhibit climatic conditions that are not conducive to information technology installations. They often experience levels of humidity, temperature and environmental contaminants that exceed what companies might be accustomed to in the United States. Even under the best of conditions, this trio of trouble is known to be the leading cause of failure for data storage systems such as hard drives and tape backups. The threat is exacerbated in many developing countries, even where well-built server rooms and data centers exist (which, in fact, often are built to specifications approved in developed countries.)

The high levels of humidity characteristic of many developing regions can cause problems with data storage devices. Humid conditions can affect the longevity of tape media, which are usually used as backup for primary hard drive storage. Since backup tapes often are transported to an off-site location as a precaution against disasters such as fires and floods at the primary facility, they can be exposed to harsh outside elements as they leave environmentally controlled server rooms en route to their destination. While the distance between facilities might be short, traffic jams and other unexpected delays are all too common in developing countries. Over time, the repetition of short-term exposures can result in damage. Therefore, companies need to consider how best to transport tape media to ensure the continuity of stable environmental conditions as much as possible.

Ambient temperature has a considerable impact on data storage reliability. The excessively high temperatures in many parts of the developing world can have the same effect as increasing workload on storage devices and consequently can decrease their service life. Although air conditioning systems are abundantly available in most developing countries, they often are built to specifications that fail to meet expectations demanded in a developed country. Combined with poor building insulation, maintaining a consistent ambient temperature in an enclosed room is more difficult in the developing world. Moreover, potential water leakage and excessive condensation from over-worked, lower-quality air conditioning units are threats.

In economically advanced countries, IT employees enjoy a commute to work that is relatively dirt-free. From the time they leave their home and enter the server room at work, they are exposed to relatively clean conditions. Not so in many developing countries, where even in the most upscale parts of town, staff might have to tread through refuse and dirty streets before and after riding in or on exposed transportation (e.g. motorbikes or "open air" buses or taxis.) While soiling might not be highly visible to the naked eye, companies can expect an increased amount of ambient dust and dirt in the vicinity of IT systems. When combined with high humidity and the dust-attracting nature of cooling fans and statically charged hard drives, it takes very little grit and grime to threaten the integrity of data storage systems. While enforcing stringent and expensive "clean room" policies is probably unrealistic, extra attention should be paid to keeping the environment as clean as possible.

Whether in the comfortable conditions of home or more volatile environments abroad, companies should conduct regular maintenance of failover systems and routinely test disaster recovery plans. These activities often will reveal the need to upgrade or replace hardware components. Managers should be aware that qualified service personnel or replacement parts may be scarce or completely unavailable in some countries. While testing disaster recovery plans is even more important in developing conditions, recent research from PricewaterhouseCoopers indicates half of the companies with plans do not test them.

Benefits gained from the lower cost structure of developing countries are not without costs themselves. The unique circumstances of operating in the challenging environments of the developing world require managers to question assumptions regarding operating conditions that might hold true in their home countries. Extraordinary conditions likely will mean updates to ordinary disaster recovery plans.

Scott Rader is a PhD candidate in the Department of Marketing and Logistics at the University of Tennessee College of Business Administration. Before pursuing his academic career, he worked for 12 years in the information technology industry, which included IT disaster recovery planning in the United States and Southeast Asia.

For over 30 years, University of Tennessee (UT) has played a major role in the areas of supply chain/logistics; supply chain certification; lean; process improvement; executive education; and leadership development -- conducting innovative research, publishing leading-edge findings, writing industry-standard textbooks and creating benchmarks.

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