So Who are these Black Swans, Anyway?

Black Swans
Black Swans are like Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition: NO ONE expects it. You’re watching birds on a lake. There are ducks. Geese. Maybe a pink heron. Based on where you are, you can guess what birds could show up. Some are rare, most aren’t. But no one expects the Black Swan. So in military tactics analysis and business continuity planning, it’s the attack or the failure that statistically wasn’t even calculated; it just wasn’t even considered.

You can’t plan for a Black Swan. For computer disaster preparation, you plan for hard drive failures, lightning strikes, burglaries. Floods in wet areas, exploding sprinkler heads in cold areas. Tornadoes in Kansas. But there’s no expecting a black swan event; if you knew what it was, it would not be a black swan event. The overall problem is this: You know what you know. You have no clue what you don’t.

Superstorm Sandy? Yes, to some extent. Hurricane planning covered that for all but the areas hit hardest–it was close enough that for all but the worst-hit areas, a hurricane plan covered it.

Snowmageddon I and II ? Well, central Maryland clearly didn’t plan for over 7 feet of snow during serial blizzards. Snow-induced roof collapses aren’t typical around here. No, that’s weren’t typical. We’ve had practice now, might be ready next time.
Snowmageddon I
So how do you plan for a generic group of natural or man-made disasters that you can’t plan for? You have to make a few assumptions:

  • Management and staff of the business will survive, mostly, but transportation and communication may not allow you to evaluate that.
  • The local business environment for the business will be viable after the event, at some point.
  • Suppliers and service providers will be up and running, if remote enough.

With these assumptions, which by the very nature of black swans, may be completely wrong, we could have some starting points:

  • Your staff should know to call in as “can’t make it in” even if it’s obvious that “there’s no way anybody could ever make it in. Period.” and they should know in advance who to call at home to check in, and who is the backup person to call at home. Or better yet, the out-of-state contact person collecting and relaying messages.
  • If the business location still exists, and still has power and communications, planning in advance for teleworking would have been a good idea, if you had planned for the black swan of all mothers of blizzards to park on top of you. In good times, telework is an employment perk. In bad times, it’s business survival.
  • If you had set up telephone forwarding options in advance, that can be turned on remotely, you would be less miserable now. If your plans were flexible enough to work when the cell towers have no power or are overwhelmed with traffic, even better.
  • Computer data backups that can be accessed remotely are ideal. Some cloud systems can do that, others can’t. But the black birds on your roof won’t let you go set it up right now. (It’s crows this time, maybe a vulture…) Plan ahead.

Computer data backups that are in your office, if said office still exists, have all the hypothetical power of Schrödinger’s Cat. They may (or may not) be there, or be wet/frozen/fried/zapped, or liquified. They might wait for you. Might currently be migrating across the ocean on a garbage island floating away from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, along with a flock of blackened sea gulls. Cloud backups would be a better choice, if they’re really, really ‘cloud’ and set up in advance.

So let’s pause and explain what a ‘cloud’ is. In scientific terms, a cloud is a geographically-redundant and geographically-distributed set of computer servers for some combination of either storage or computation. “A server in Cleveland” is not “the cloud.” A SET of backup servers in at least two locations, with automatic fail-over and duplication, is minimally a cloud. The internet is not the cloud any more than the moon is the solar system. There are many moons in the solar system, but the parts are not individually the sum. So if you hear ‘cloud’, ask ‘how many continents are the servers on?’ You will likely hear a reply of either zero content, like “it’s all up there somewhere”, or “the data is stored in our own data centers based in these three cities, and they’re in different time zones.” If that scale is appropriate for the scale of your operations, great. If not, get a real cloud service provider.

So can you plan for the bird that doesn’t exist? We might hope for some other bird, maybe the Bluebird of Happiness, instead, but dealing with good things doesn’t require dark thoughts and redundant data storage. Black Swans can be planned for, by being ready for all the little disasters we understand, and guessing they’ll stack up someday. The really big black swan? Well, we won’t ever really know about that one until it arrives.