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Chapter: Security in Computing : Administering Security

Contingency Planning

The key to successful recovery is adequate preparation. Seldom does a crisis destroy irreplaceable equipment; most computing systemspersonal computers to mainframesare standard, off-the-shelf systems that can be easily replaced.

Contingency Planning


The key to successful recovery is adequate preparation. Seldom does a crisis destroy irreplaceable equipment; most computing systemspersonal computers to mainframesare standard, off-the-shelf systems that can be easily replaced. Data and locally developed programs are more vulnerable because they cannot be quickly substituted from another source. Let us look more closely at what to do after a crisis occurs.




In many computing systems, some data items change frequently, whereas others seldom change. For example, a database of bank account balances changes daily, but a file of depositors' names and addresses changes much less often. Also the number of changes in a given period of time is different for these two files. These variations in number and extent of change relate to the amount of data necessary to reconstruct these files in the event of a loss.


A backup is a copy of all or a part of a file to assist in reestablishing a lost file. In professional computing systems, periodic backups are usually performed automatically, often at night when system usage is low. Everything on the system is copied, including system files, user files, scratch files, and directories, so that the system can be regenerated after a crisis. This type of backup is called a complete backup. Complete backups are done at regular intervals, usually weekly or daily, depending on the criticality of the information or service provided by the system.


Major installations may perform revolving backups, in which the last several backups are kept. Each time a backup is done, the oldest backup is replaced with the newest one. There are two reasons to perform revolving backups: to avoid problems with corrupted media (so that all is not lost if one of the disks is bad) and to allow users or developers to retrieve old versions of a file. Another form of backup is a selective backup, in which only files that have been changed (or created) since the last backup are saved. In this case, fewer files must be saved, so the backup can be done more quickly. A selective backup combined with an earlier complete backup gives the effect of a complete backup in the time needed for only a selective backup. The selective backup is subject to the configuration management techniques described in Chapter 3.


For each type of backup, we need the means to move from the backup forward to the point of failure. That is, we need a way to restore the system in the event of failure. In critical transaction systems, we address this need by keeping a complete record of changes since the last backup. Sometimes, the system state is captured by a combination of computer- and paper-based recording media. For example, if a system handles bank teller operations, the individual tellers duplicate their processing on paper recordsthe deposit and withdrawal slips that accompany your bank transactions; if the system fails, the staff restores the latest backup version and reapplies all changes from the collected paper copies. Or the banking system creates a paper journal, which is a log of transactions printed just as each transaction completes.


Personal computer users often do not appreciate the need for regular backups. Even minor crises, such as a failed piece of hardware, can seriously affect personal computer users. With a backup, users can simply change to a similar machine and continue work.


Offsite Backup


A backup copy is useless if it is destroyed in the crisis, too. Many major computing installations rent warehouse space some distance from the computing system, far enough away that a crisis is not likely to affect the offsite location at the same time. As a backup is completed, it is transported to the backup site. Keeping a backup version separate from the actual system reduces the risk of its loss. Similarly, the paper trail is also stored somewhere other than at the main computing facility.


Personal computer users concerned with integrity can take home a copy of important disks as protection or send a copy to a friend in another city. If both secrecy and integrity are important, a bank vault, or even a secure storage place in another part of the same building can be used. The worst place to store a backup copy is where it usually is stored: right next to the machine.


Networked Storage


With today's extensive use of networking, using the network to implement backups is a good idea. Storage providers sell space in which you can store data; think of these services as big network-attached disk drives. You rent space just as you would consume electricity: You pay for what you use. The storage provider needs to provide only enough total space to cover everyone's needs, and it is easy to monitor usage patterns and increase capacity as combined needs rise.


Networked storage is perfect for backups of critical data because you can choose a storage provider whose physical storage is not close to your processing. In this way, physical harm to your system will not affect your backup. You do not need to manage tapes or other media and physically transport them offsite.


Cold Site


Depending on the nature of the computation, it may be important to be able to recover from a crisis and resume computation quickly. A bank, for example, might be able to tolerate a four-hour loss of computing facilities during a fire, but it could not tolerate a ten-month period to rebuild a destroyed facility, acquire new equipment, and resume operation.


Most computer manufacturers have several spare machines of most models that can be delivered to any location within 24 hours in the event of a real crisis. Sometimes the machine will come straight from assembly; other times the system will have been in use at a local office. Machinery is seldom the hard part of the problem. Rather, the hard part is deciding where to put the equipment in order to begin a temporary operation.


A cold site or shell is a facility with power and cooling available, in which a computing system can be installed to begin immediate operation. Some companies maintain their own cold sites, and other cold sites can be leased from disaster recovery companies. These sites usually come with cabling, fire prevention equipment, separate office space, telephone access, and other features. Typically, a computing center can have equipment installed and resume operation from a cold site within a week of a disaster.


Hot Site


If the application is more critical or if the equipment needs are more specialized, a hot site may be more appropriate. A hot site is a computer facility with an installed and ready-to -run computing system. The system has peripherals, telecommunications lines, power supply, and even personnel ready to operate on short notice. Some companies maintain their own; other companies subscribe to a service that has available one or more locations with installed and running computers. To activate a hot site, it is necessary only to load software and data from offsite backup copies.


Numerous services offer hot sites equipped with every popular brand and model of system. They provide diagnostic and system technicians, connected communications lines, and an operations staff. The hot site staff also assists with relocation by arranging transportation and housing, obtaining needed blank forms, and acquiring office space.


Because these hot sites serve as backups for many customers, most of whom will not need the service, the annual cost to any one customer is fairly low. The cost structure is like insurance: The likelihood of an auto accident is low, so the premium is reasonable, even for a policy that covers the complete replacement cost of an expensive car. Notice, however, that the first step in being able to use a service of this type is a complete and timely backup.


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