Friday, 11 April 2014

Work Area Recovery: WAR – What is it Good for?

I was sat in the office the other week when all of a sudden a deafeningly high-pitch fire alarm started ringing in my ear and it continued to ring out for much longer than the usual 30 second-test. Is this a drill?

As I look to my colleagues for a response, the teams around me began to stand up from their desks and without question form a steady line out through the fire escape. A majority of these people had clearly done this before as they calmly migrate their way to allocated rendezvous points and without a single hint of panic. I suppose in the absence of a raging inferno or a sudden onset of thick smoke, they think it’s safe to assume a colleague has foolishly burnt their toast or something. Anyway, as I’m stood in the distant car park awaiting my queue to get back to work, I can’t help but wonder how relaxed we actually might be if the bell continued to ring, the flames started to rise and we lost the entire building…and what then? Ultimately, with everyone safe and well, the show really must go on. We all have clients to serve and we need to get back to work as soon as possible. I’m fairly certain you won’t be able to meet any Service Level Agreements (SLAs) or a Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) from the car park!

Historically, all types continuity plans (in whatever shape or design you create them) will typically identify a relocation strategy to another building or premises if something like the above should ever occur. In my experience, the cost effective options are usually deployed first:

1) Send home the other non-critical staff and services from office space you might have from another location and use that space short-term to relocate.

2) Set up a mutual agreement with a neighbouring organisation perhaps with shared interests i.e. you can use their space and they can use yours when things get bad.

In the private sector today, many organisations now take advantage of a more sophisticated solution (at cost) which is commonly known as a Work Area Recovery (WAR). From what I can see, this is becoming a rapid growth area as organisations reach agreements with dedicated providers of alternative space and technology.

I recently worked with a small project team to develop one of these WAR site solutions and was heavily involved in how it might actually work in reality with operations. As a junior professional in this industry it was completely new territory for me and so true to form I’ve decided to share my experience.

Disclaimer: There are stacks and stacks of information leaflets on the basics of WAR sites so I won’t bore you with too many specifics. Also, I’m sure there are people who will quickly try to point out my inaccuracies but I am viewing this from a first time approach and I’m certain I won’t be the only one with these views. If you want some wider more useful detail on this I would recommend Mr Paul Kirvan online posts.

Overcomplicated Complacency
I recently spoke to a colleague who confidently suggested to me that setting up and invoking an alternative workspace is a relatively simple process. I really couldn’t disagree more having spent a number of months working on a solution for a number sites in multiple countries.

As with every industry, there are those who needlessly over-complicate the process and those who over simplify (such as Sales Teams from WAR site Providers in my opinion). So the rest of this post will give you what I’ve learned in the last few months.

Basic Jargon-Busting
In my very first planning meeting I was surprised by the sheer range of terminology being used even on the basic stuff. Here are a few examples:

Cold Site:

This is basically an open space you’ve secured (usually an empty office floor or building). It usually has no equipment or furniture installed. But if you needed to you could urgently kit it out and move staff in but as you will appreciate will take some time to do this.

Hot Site:

This is the term used to describe alternative premises that are set up and ready to go with all the access, data, facilities, software and hardware to carry on working as if you’ve always worked there. As you can imagine having a completely mirrored site just sat there is the most expensive solution.

Warm Site: After the last two descriptions, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what this term means. Essentially it is a happy medium between a cold and hot site. You have the space; hardware and connectivity installed, ready to go but things like back-up data might not be instantly available involving a short delay in readiness.

Desk: I have to admit this one confused me briefly because when you discuss “desks” in this context, it also appears to mean desk, drawers, telephone, monitor, hard drive, chair etc. No one told me this for quite a while.

Syndicated Desks: This is where basically you hire a space that is shared between clients (presumably at a reduced cost) on the assumption that not all of you will need it at the same time. Nevertheless the process appears to work on a first come first serve basis meaning if an incident affects a wide area and the other business gets there first you miss out.

Dedicated Desks: This is where all the kit is exclusively yours to use and is sat there waiting for you. Naturally you pay a premium for exclusivity.

Thin Client: For me this was temporarily confusing. Clients are basically PCs that employees will use when they arrive at the alternative site. A thin client doesn’t have all the stand-alone technology to work without the applications being piped through from the main server. It is essentially a portal working off the server from what I can tell.

Rich Client: This is where the PC that has some applications/software installed locally but also depends on other resources distributed over the network from the server. For us this is typically when some departments rely on unique or specific software that other departments don’t need.

The above terms are just the initial ones that what I would consider to be the basics you encounter first. If you’re non-tech like me you will probably find that as you delve deeper in to the physical and technological arrangements of a full relocation it can sometimes feel like the IT crowd are talking a different language. Terms such as “DHCP Server”, “ACD Switch” and “LAN” that you don’t typically use every day start to rear their ugly head. Also, IT Departments tend to fall in to the habit of using lots of acronyms. In fact during a recent meeting there were so many I actually stopped to ask the technical architect what one of these acronyms meant to which the highly experienced individual replied “ I don’t know what it fully spells out but I know what it does”…My point being try not to be scared off by the black magic that is IT as they don’t appear to fully know either.

It’s not just a Lift and Shift
I have recently spoken to a number of professionals about the concept of Work Area Recovery and generally speaking there are quite a few that claim to not only know a lot about it (even as a non-tech professional) but also suggest the process is particularly easy. It’s almost as if they assume you simply move to another site and plug in but it really doesn’t work like that. In fact, it never works like that so if someone tries to pull the same ego-based stunt on you then don’t believe it. This is a project of significant size and don’t underestimate it.

Resources Requirement Overdrive
As part of planning arrangements for a potential relocation, managers are asked to state their resource requirements. However, in my experience, this is basically where operational managers will tell you they need every desk and every pc available with every possible software package ever installed and if they don’t get it then it will surely result in a major business catastrophe!! I exaggerate of course but that’s the sort of impression I got when arranging ours. Although, this is a very typical response to get in business continuity anyway so it will come as no surprise to my people in the industry. It’s a real balancing act between making a realistic assessment of genuine business resource requirements against the hefty demands from a panic-stricken department manager.

The Bigger they are the harder they failover

A larger organisation will often have multiple sites across a number of locations and sometimes being supported by different servers. If you do have to move to another site, the work required to make it happen urgently from both a physical and technological perspective is relative to the size of the business. One WAR site provider once told me that the bigger organisation, the more complex the move is as you would rightly expect. Try not to compare the apparently seamless transition of a small single-site business to an alternative site when planning yours. I gather it’s a great deal easier.

Practice Makes Perfect
The amount of tests and rehearsals involved can also be a bit misleading. If you decided to sign up to a WAR site agreement you will typically think that maybe 1 or 2 practice events should nail it but it can be more complicated than that. These are the things I personally think you need to prepare:

1)Engage with BAU staff. There is a difference between the tech guys designing the technical solution for the move to those who will help the staff move on the day and this sometimes gets overlooked. Try to maintain a high level of engagement with the onsite desktop support engineers. Agree on and test a process with the BAU resources before you even touch the wider operations. It’s all well and good having a solution but once the technical architects finish their work and move on you will be left with a solution and no one to support it. Operational staff won’t know how to troubleshoot anything technical.

2)Gain permission to access your own network in advance of any connectivity testing from your internal change management board or whatever red tape exists in your organisation to slow the process down – ahem I mean ensure the process if safe and low-risk.

3)Try to pre-train or brief key staff who can confidently support an office move at a service level. This could include taking them across to the site so they can familiarise themselves with the facilities, where to park, fire exits, room layout, desk space etc. It’s really valuable to have a few people who are visibly more calm and familiar with the surroundings.

4)The pre-planning and assessments need to be thorough. It’s not just about the IT but also the other supplementary equipment including stationary and any other specialist equipment. You also need to think about the simple logistics like transport of staff from fixed points, refreshments and lunch facilities. It’s amazing how quickly you can forget the basics when you get lost in the tech detail.

For those not in the industry or even those that consider this as a simple task, all I will say is…Did you honestly think it was that simple to urgently move a business from one location to another? It takes serious planning.

For those just generally interested in what happens if your fire alarm continues to ring and you end up losing your building, at least you now you have an idea of what might happen behind the scenes to get you off the Car Park and back to work.

To my fellow BlueyedBC recent graduates, career changers and newbies… if you are faced with setting up a WAR site solution for the first time you needn’t be overwhelmed. It’s much like with anything else in business and simply a case of grasping the process and terminology and applying common sense.


  1. Syndicated Desks / Syndicated Seats: Depending upon the provider, this may be on a scale back approach (based on subscribed seats) rather than first come first served. Generally providers have geographic restrictions on number of seats they will subscribed from a particular building / radius. There may also be restrictions by industry as competitor confidentiality may be a concern. Subscription or syndication is often 8 -10 times but couold be much higher depending upon provider.

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