Maintaining Your Intranet During the Holidays

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (17-Dec-2004)

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Another year is coming to an end and everyone's gearing up for the holidays. Office parties are being organized, not-so-subtle decorations are being hung everywhere, and thoughts of photocopying certain parts of the human anatomy are already percolating in some minds. Like every year, we promise ourselves that we're going to be on our best behavior, still trying to live down the fools we made of ourselves the previous holiday.

But with all the festivities there remains some core aspects of business that must go on regardless; because after you wake up with a throbbing hangover, you'll still be left with the same to-do list you had before you stripped down to your skivvies and did a tabletop dance with a mistletoe tied around your head.

As Murphy's Law dictates, everything will be fine when you're around and at full staff, but the moment you turn your back—if even for a moment—something catastrophic will occur. So before you toss all your work aside and jump into the snow, there's one important thing to remember: When the parents are away, the gremlins come out to play.

System Availability During the Holidays

Is it necessary to keep your intranet running over the holidays or can you power it down? The answer depends on how long your operation will be closed, the purpose of your intranet and, to a greater extent, the business processes it supports. If your business needs to continue to operate throughout holidays then so must your intranet. This is especially true if you're running an international operation where the local significance of the holidays may mean little elsewhere.

System availability is crucial in high-priority, mission-critical intranets—as discussed in my two-part series on maintaining intranet integrity—and must continue to run despite any environmental conditions and situations. While your user base will be significantly lower during the holidays, it doesn't mean that you can afford to board up the windows and close-up shop for two weeks.

Even with a reduced user base there are aspects of an intranet, and corporate IT systems in general, that still need to be maintained so long as they continue to run:

Although most of these components are probably already in place and have been running trouble-free for some time, things can still go wrong. You must be prepared to deal with any problems that may threaten the integrity and stability of your IT systems—holiday or not.

It's always good to have an emergency point-of-contact (or contacts) in the event that something should happen while the majority of your staff is away. You don't want to be left in a position where a critical network or security problem is detected and then having no one available to act upon the threat.

Forming a Skeleton Crew

It's never a good idea to leave systems—especially complex, high-profile ones—running for a long period of time without someone to look after them. This is not to say that these types of systems are so fragile that they require constant attention; it simply means that all IT systems, regardless of how automated, still require some form of human involvement to ensure smooth operation. Systems don't take care of themselves and are rarely, if ever, self-correcting. If something should happen, there needs to be someone available to act upon the problem or threat.

If your intranet is critical to your operation, you may consider forming a skeleton crew—a minimum number of people required to keep a system up-and-running—or an emergency response team (ERT) during the holiday period to act upon IT crises such as:

Whether it's necessary for you to put together a skeleton crew or ERT will be up to you. Smaller operations who shut their doors during the holidays may decide to do likewise with all their IT systems—if no systems are running, there's nothing to maintain. Larger organizations may need to keep their IT systems operational out of necessity.

But you don't actually need to have your skeleton crew or ERT on-site—that would be overkill. If your company is maintaining a basic level of IT operation during the holidays, your IT department will most likely already have someone to oversee the entire IT infrastructure, including your intranet. It's this person's responsibility to "babysit" all of the running IT systems and to contact the appropriate person should something go wrong. If you're lucky, nothing will happen and your skeleton crew or ERT will never have to be called into action.

Remember, though, that a skeleton crew or ERT should only be used for real emergencies. The purpose of maintaining this type of a core staff is to have a point-of-contact in the event of an emergency or to carry out disaster recovery procedures. All other minor issues can be handled by the on-site IT system "babysitter."

So how do you go about choosing your skeleton crew or ERT? The key is not to force anyone to work against their will; employees may have pre-existing plans to be out of town. Providing them with an ultimatum will create hostility and resentment, damaging employer/employee relations and lowering company morale.

Instead, ask for volunteers and offer an incentive such allowing them to charge time-and-a-half or double-time if they need to come into work during the holidays. And make sure that you let your IT personnel know that a skeleton crew or ERT will be required ahead of time so that employees can prepare accordingly. Don't spring it on them a day before everyone's set to leave.

Intranet Maintenance Issues

If you can't afford to shut down your IT operations entirely over the holidays, you should keep in mind that there are certain intranet and IT-related maintenance tasks that need to be carried out even when you're operating on a reduced staff. The good news is that many of these maintenance tasks can be, and probably already are, automated. Examples of some of these tasks include the updating of your anti-virus software's signature file and the backing up of data and system files.

While most of these maintenance tasks can run automatically based on a user configurable schedule, some, such as backups, may still require human interaction. Larger organizations with heterogeneous IT systems across multiple servers, and server flavors, will most likely have more elaborate back-up systems residing on disk arrays or a SAN. The entire backup procedure can be automated with little-to-no user intervention beyond verifying if the process was successful.

However, smaller organizations with a single server and a less elaborate backup system usually require some form of human interaction—most likely to alternate the backup media. While the process of initiating the backups can be easily scheduled through the backup software, smaller organizations need to consider whether they are going to maintain their normal backup media cycle or simply re-use the same media for the period in which the office will be closed. This decision should be based on:

In addition to the automation of regular maintenance processes, there may be unforeseen issues—minor system glitches and general user support—that require human intervention. They're not emergencies but require attention nonetheless and can usually be resolved quickly. The only problem is the time it takes to go into the office may end up being longer than the time required for the resolution of the issue.

The best solution here, provided that you have all of the proper security mechanisms in place, is to provide on-call skeleton crew or ERT members with remote administration tools and a secure pipe into internal network resources. This will allow them to troubleshoot and resolve problems from a remote location without needing to go into the office.

Final Thoughts

This is the season many of us put aside all the work that's kept us up late at night and reconnect with family and friends. But in doing so, we shouldn't throw caution to the wind because the systems we work on before the holidays will still be the systems we work on after the holidays.

If your intranet needs to remain operational over the holidays, take the necessary steps to ensure that minor problems don't snowball into full system failures because no one was around to take action when these problems could have been stemmed. The goal here is to maintain the integrity of your intranet with minimal staff. Otherwise, it will be doubly hard to return to work knowing that you're going to have to repair something that happened to your intranet while you were—as Bob Cratchit put it in Dickens' A Christmas Carol—"making rather merry."

But you shouldn't obsess or become paranoid; there's a very good chance that nothing will even happen. Just make sure you have a planned and prepared response if something does. So enjoy your holidays... and stay off the photocopier.

Copyright © 2004 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.