Years ago, a small or midsize business (SMB) had few worries when it came to business continuity. An occasional telephone or electrical outage was about the only disaster that most businesses ever encountered.

How times have changed!

Today, SMBs depend upon computer-based systems to run vital areas of their businesses. If these systems go down, a company literally cannot serve its customers or interact with its value chain of partners and suppliers. That's a disaster indeed.

Therefore, all businesses today must be concerned with continuity and resilience. But it's not enough simply to restore downed IT systems. SMB decision-makers and owners must think of business continuity in terms of the complete functioning of their companies. That is, they have to consider the issue holistically, understanding that a business is the totality of all its tangible assets, processes and enabling technologies.

The Bad News

When you hear the word "disaster," you might first think of the worst possible scenario, such as a terrorist attack (or the Cubs missing the World Series). But, in reality, common, everyday events are far more likely to put your business's operations in jeopardy.

Computer worms and viruses are everywhere, constantly growing in reach and virulence. Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, fires, snow and ice, also frequently threaten. Software applications can fail, utilities can go out and employees can make business-busting mistakes (intentionally or not). Even a snafu at a key supplier can compromise your company. At minimum, a business outage may simply be aggravating or an inconvenience. But it also can do serious damage, resulting in significant loss of revenues and even the loss of customers, partners and market confidence.

It's nice to believe that disaster will never hit your business, but a responsible company leader simply cannot make that assumption. Most crises can be prevented by anticipating the risks. If a disaster does occur, proper planning can manage and contain it.

The Good News

There are a number of business technologies available today that can help sustain and restore business operations so that your SMB is able to function with far less fear of interruption. These technologies include:

  • A robust network infrastructure that eliminates single points of vulnerability or failure. Security capabilities, such as firewalls, anti-virus software, intrusion detection/protection and spam filters, should be embedded in key LAN/WAN access devices so that security breaches are detected and eliminated automatically.
  • Redundant, secure data storage. Some SMBs choose to manage their own storage systems through an iSCSI-based storage-area network, which is highly secure and scalable. Other SMBs outsource this function to managed storage service providers, which implement and securely manage storage capabilities for them. SMBs also often choose web-based storage services, which allow business users to store documents on third-party servers, permitting SMBs to access data and continue to operate even if the main office is shut down.
  • Wireless capabilities. Wireless LANs and cell phones help an SMB remain up and running even if wireline information systems fail. In addition, wireless-based IP video surveillance can be used to protect SMB assets and workers.

As mentioned previously, these technologies do not exist in a vacuum. They must be part of a broad, holistic plan to ensure business continuity, not just disaster recovery. This plan should involve every part of the business, such as processes, operations, assets, workers and so on. The overall goal: Prevent business disruption-then minimize it if it does occur. To this end, SMBs should:

  • Conduct an impact analysis. How much downtime, loss of productivity, loss of data, loss of revenues and so on can your company sustain? For how long?
  • Develop a plan for dealing with mission-critical (revenue-impacting, customer-facing) functions and business-critical (back office, supply chain, e-mail) functions under various disruptive scenarios. Determine which business technologies to employ.
  • Educate your workers about the plan before a crisis occurs.
  • From time to time, revisit the plan to make sure it remains practicable and viable.

In the end, business continuity isn't about data recovery tools. It's about the success of your business. SMBs must think in terms of protecting and sustaining optimal operation and safety of all processes, functions, applications and assets. With some foresight and planning, your business should never find itself in danger of sustained downtime.

An apple a day would be good, too.

Robyn Aber is senior director of Solutions Development, Engineering & Marketing at Cisco Systems Inc., responsible for defining, developing and rolling out new end-to-end technical solutions for small and midsized businesses. Aber has more than 29 years of IT, marketing and business development experience.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.