Public sector is ready for disaster

26 Feb 2004

On a national scale in government departments such as finance, agriculture or social welfare the potential catastrophe of losing data truly is unthinkable. All government departments have their data duplicated in at least two separate locations and most now have their applications mirrored so that automatic failover will keep them going seamlessly in the event of failure in any part of the primary system.

The commitment across the public sector to implement e-government in its myriad potential forms is also driving the emphasis towards service continuity. A major infrastructural support is the fact that almost all public sector agencies are on fibre networks, at least for their headquarter (HQ) functions, while the government virtual private network (VPN) also enables the broadband transmission of data. This means that it is relatively easier for them, for example, to copy their data securely to alternative locations or switch elements of their information and communications technology (ICT) operations to alternative routes or locations in the event of problems.

A superb example of the new breed of multi-location functionality is the health service, which has implemented payroll and human resources applications using SAP on a national basis covering all employees of the regional boards, including the hospitals. The project office is in Sligo, the applications are managed and hosted for the Health Boards Executive (HeBe) by IBM at its Mulhuddart data centre in Co Dublin, and of course it is networked to all regional HQs and major hospitals.

“What the IBM-managed service gives us is guaranteed high availability and business continuity,” explains national projects director HeBe, Tony Reilly. Health boards are also implementing a programme of local backup partnerships so that, for example, the ICT functions of St James’s Hospital are linked to the Eastern Regional Health Authority system so that each can support some critical elements of the other in the event of local failure.

A similar managed service contract sees the new US$40m Hewlett-Packard (HP) data centre in Citywest Business Park, Co Dublin, hosting a cluster of approximately 100 servers for Eastern Health Shared Services (EHSS). It also includes disaster recovery for critical hospital systems in the region and from the main system to a third-party data centre on the northside of the city. The strategy is to cater for the significant growth in IT requirements anticipated in the health sector. By outsourcing the location and hosting to HP while continuing to manage the systems itself, the EHSS is increasing capacity and enhancing service provision, including disaster tolerance.

In recent years the Department of Finance completely re-evaluated its data storage. After drawing up a rigorous performance specification, the department went to competitive tender and last year installed a storage area network (SAN) supplied and supported by HP. It now has a three-terabyte capacity server array centralising data storage at its Merrion Street HQ, which is in turn linked to another SAN replicating all of the data at a separately located disaster recovery site.

If not quite of the order of importance of the Department of Finance, the Motor Taxation Division of the Department of Environment and Local Government (DELG) holds the essential national database of vehicle and driver licences at its Shannon offices. The high-performance EMC data storage array (two terabytes current capacity) at the heart of this real-time system is directly connected over fibre optics to a mirrored system at the DOELG disaster recovery site in Ennis, just 26 miles away. This highly secure solution supersedes the previous recovery plan involving overnight despatch of backup tapes to a Dublin site and is regarded as one of the most advanced in the public sector.

Local authorities are unusual in that their ICT continuity solutions tend to be added to existing disaster plans rather than driven by the systems side as in almost all private enterprise. Because their statutory role includes regional disaster planning and co-ordination of emergency services, town and city councils have long had emergency arrangements for redeployment of staff and communications.

“We already have our alternative sites for critical council functions,” explains Kerry County Council’s head of IT, Brian Looney. “Last year we moved to a SAN to consolidate our data storage, supplied by Dell and EMC, and our financial systems and critical applications such as planning are fully functional while some other systems have yet to be migrated. But in addition to the built-in resilience in the SAN we have the ability to run our critical applications on off-site servers if we had to evacuate the county building. Our recovery site is the Ashe Hall, where we could have core systems up and running again in an hour or so while our service level agreements with key equipment suppliers mean that we could add capacity, such as workstations, very speedily,” he explains.

After consultation with many councils the pilot implementation of the recovery plan for local authorities, for which the specifications were drawn up by the Local Government Computer Services Board (LGCSB), was implemented in Mayo County Council with the technical support of Renaissance Contingency Services. While they differ in scale and local characteristics, all Irish local government bodies share the same set of statutory responsibilities, functions and ICT systems because of the movement towards standardisation led by the LGCSB. So they have Agresso Financials and all Microsoft platforms and applications in common, which makes a common business continuity template both possible and highly valuable. Conceding that there is still some way to go before all local authorities have comprehensive business continuity structures in place, Tim Willoughby, LGCSB assistant director, says: “we have to get it right because we haven’t the budget to get it wrong!”

He is confident that data backup procedures and recovery plans for serious disaster are universally in place and functional, but councils vary thereafter because of their scale or resources. The larger ones are already in the process of data consolidation on SANs while some have automatic failover or even hot-site contracts with commercial service providers.

Decentralisation drives new approach to disaster planning

The Government’s decentralisation strategy is based on the assumption that with today’s technology — and a healthy fibre optic infrastructure nationally as well as the government VPN — departments and public sector agencies can actually be located almost anywhere. It is true in may respects but the irony is that it is now set to have a major impact on many planned and even current IT investments. Some of the knock-on consequences will certainly add expense and delay aspects to the development of the very e-government technology that is expected to underpin decentralisation in the first place.

An example is the Department of Agriculture, already one of the most decentralised departments with current and approved plans to build a new data centre at Backweston, near Lucan, which will house the displaced mainframes from Kildare Street and new consolidated national data systems. It has also been widely acknowledged that there are informal agreements with other departments that the location and capacity of the new data centre make it ideal as a backup or failover site for them. However, now that the department has been designated for a Portlaoise headquarter move, that data centre project has to be delayed until it is re-examined for suitability in its new geographical context. If it is found wanting in the new circumstances, the costs to date are going to be largely lost. It is to be assumed that there are other public sector bodies with information and communications technology (ICT) projects that were predicated on existing locations.

The Centre for Management and Organisation Development, the ICT leader for the government service, held a significant meeting last week of all ICT heads to discuss the implications of the decentralisation for their systems and plans. At the very least, many projects will have to be put on hold, some will be abandoned and others will be redesigned. There will be time and cost implications, and it will be interesting to see how it all pans out as the respective teams struggle to have detailed implementation plans in time for the strict 3 March 2004 deadline.

By Leslie Faughnan