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Disaster recovery on the cheap

You may be able to keep your business connected in the wake of a disaster by leveraging cellular telephone networks. Tom Lancaster explains how in this tip.

One of the questions on ITKnowledgeExchange got me thinking this week about ways for small businesses, which can't afford elaborate disaster-recovery facilities, to deal with very rapid changes like we've seen recently, with all the hurricane-related activity in the United States.

The problem for network disaster recovery, of course, has always been that the network is so location-dependent. It's not like applications and data that you can move virtually to another server somewhere else in the world. The whole point of physical circuits is that they go to some specific place. Unfortunately, WAN circuits at best take more than a month to install, and at worst, three or four months, and that's under normal business conditions. Attempting to install a new circuit quickly after an event like Hurricane Katrina would be futile. In the meantime, the small business is disconnected.

802.11-based wireless products offer a lot more flexibility for the last mile, and can be leveraged for point-to-point outdoor circuits, but only in relatively rare circumstances, as you still need line-of-sight and a relatively short distance.

An interesting and fairly low-cost alternative would be public wireless data services leveraging the cellular networks. Few people are familiar with these services, and fewer still use them, but most of the major cellular providers offer cell-enabled PC-cards that you can put in your laptop and connect to the Internet.

The "Evolution Data Optimized" standard, or "EV-DO" offers 700 Kbps and peaks around 2 Mbps. Sprint and Verizon use this technology. Cingular and AT&T, however, are in the process of deploying a competing standard, Universal Mobile Telephone Service (UMTS), which offers around 300 to 384 Kbs. That's still not too shabby as it's about the speed of the average cable modem. Monthly pricing is in the $80-$150 range, depending on your plan. The intent of these services, of course, is for individual users browsing the Web and accessing enterprise applications. But in reality, it's just an Internet connection, like any other, that really only requires you to be within range of a cellular tower.

You could get a little fancier if you wanted, but after a real disaster, when you're desperate to get your business back up and running in a new (and probably temporary) facility, a simple laptop with Microsoft's connection-sharing service (built into Windows 2k and XP), and one of these cellular services could easily support a small office.

If a connection to the Internet is all you need and you've been using a cable modem, you might not even notice the performance difference. If you're recovering a corporate WAN made up of private circuits, then you will also need a device at the far end with which you can establish a VPN connection.


Tom Lancaster, CCIE# 8829 CNX# 1105, is a consultant with 15 years experience in the networking industry, and co-author of several books on networking, most recently, CCSPTM: Secure PIX and Secure VPN Study Guide published by Sybex.

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