Transport links were plunged into chaos during last year’s unusually glacial winter, which was estimated by the Centre of Economics and Business Research (Cebr) to cost the UK up to £900m a day. Many needing to work could not get into the office, while others who could have made it into work were forced to stay at home when schools were closed. Postal services and deliveries were also disrupted.
The channel was not immune. The big freeze forced many IT businesses already suffering from delayed deliveries and orders to cut their opening hours. In Basingstoke, distributors C2000, Micro-P and Hammer shut early on at least one day. Theale-based Westcoast reportedly had to cope with two feet of snow that disrupted operations for three days mid-week at one point, while Manchester reseller ANS admitted that volumes were down.
At press time, autumnal weather was continuing across large parts of the British Isles. But many have started to wonder if we are in for a repeat of the snow and ice experienced last year and the year before.
Ian Kilpatrick, chairman of IT security specialist Wick Hill (pictured, below left), says the Woking distributor worked successfully right through the snow last year. How-ever, he adds, that had a lot to do with preparation.
“We had a full working environment, and we kept everything rolling. The only problem we had last year was that some were unable to make it into the office through the snow,” he says. “We had a whole bunch of things in place, though, to see us through.”
SSL VPN enabled staff to work safely from home. Secure USB sticks enabled them to log into the office network remotely from any PC. The company’s hosting provider also offered the ability to divert phone calls to home or other numbers - but in the event, it was not needed, he adds.
“We did have more people than usual working from home last year. It was pretty tough. So we had a few people in the office and then we had a lot of people who might have to slog through [depending on what they had to do],” says Kilpatrick.
He adds, however, that problems with deliveries can often prove to be beyond the distributor’s control and that he has had various arguments with carriers about such issues.
Make all-encompassing plans
Andy Walsky, vice president of EMEA sales and marketing at Wokingham-based vendor Overland Storage, notes that it is not all about the technology. Firms must make all-encompassing plans that take account of potential service disruptions - whether to their own facilities and service or those of customers.
Walsky is based at the firm’s European headquarters in Geneva, but says he had trouble trying to get into the UK by air last winter. Other members of his team were also scattered around Europe as a result of disrupted transport links.
“Lots of people could not get into the UK office, and then there was all this mess with people running out of gravel and that sort of thing,” says Walsky.
“People have to think about it in advance, and suppose it goes to the next step, with trees falling? In the US a couple of weeks ago, they had a huge snowfall and, because it was earlier, most of the leaves were still on the trees as well, weighing down and breaking branches.”
If that happened, not only could transport be disrupted, but utilities such as power and gas would also be at risk - potentially bringing down an entire business, even if all staff worked from home.
However, proper off-site backup and its associated infrastructure could ensure the ability to carry on regardless of frost, fire or flood. In the throes of a recession, businesses may let DR slip down the priority list, but with no slack in the system, it becomes even more difficult to simply pick up the pieces and carry on if the worst happens, he says.
“If you are willing to pay the cost of losing £X every hour you’re down, and you can accept that, fine. But if not, you have to put something in place,” says Walsky. “Your people are one of your most valuable assets, yes, but so is your data.”
November figures from KPMG and the British Retail Consortium (BRC) suggest sales may already be “worryingly weak” as Christmas nears, according to Stephen Robertson, director general of the BRC.
He says UK retail sales values were 0.6 per cent lower than they were in October 2010, when sales rose 0.8 per cent. Total sales were up 1.5 per cent, compared with a 2.4 per cent increase in October 2010. “Which part of the wave we are riding varies from month to month, but the water is consistently chilly,” notes Robertson.
Darren Briscoe, technical director at Crewe-based support services provider Comms-care (pictured, below left), says its emphasis is on flexibility and having a plan B for business continuity. Possible tactics include lowering the percentage of engineers being used at any given time, adopting less vulnerable modes of transport, and offering altered shift patterns.
For Comms-care, “uncertainty management” is a significant long-term issue for the engineering workforce, particularly in the field.
“Suppliers should continuously look to review their contracts to identify those containing terms where time of delivery is of the essence,” he recommends. “If it appears that the term is going to be breached, advance warning should be given to the customer.”
However, he echoes the sentiments of Walsky and Kilpatrick, noting that businesses must have an adaptable workforce and working environment. The onset of winter can also prompt businesses to invest in the necessary software, upgrades and hardware, concludes Briscoe.
At press time, the Met Office predicted a continuation of relatively average autumn and early winter temperatures into early December. A spokesperson says: “We currently do not have a forecast for the winter period, and I can probably add very little to what the forecasts on the website are saying - the weather looks very normal for the time of year.”
Longer-range forecasts do exist, but the Met Office tends to distance itself from those, noting that seeing more than about a week ahead is a stretch for even the skilled, due to the complex modelling required.
Independent long-range forecaster James Madden has claimed on his Exacta Weather blog that the UK is likely to see another very cold winter in 2011-12.
“I expect December, January and February to experience below-average temperatures, with the heaviest snowfalls occurring within the time frame of November to January across many parts of the UK,” wrote Madden.
He uses patterns of sunspot activity and the behaviour of the jet stream, among other phenomena such as La Niña, to make his predictions. He says that despite “major indifferences” among many forecasters about what this winter has in store, his previous predictions have proved correct.
“The 2010-11 UK winter mean temperature was 1.3°C below average, with widespread heavy snowfall throughout November and December across many parts of the UK, as I originally forecast,” wrote Madden on 4 November. “I have fairly high confidence, at this stage, that we will experience a much more prolonged period of increased jet-stream blocking in comparison to last year. This will bring frequent and widespread heavy snowfalls during November to January across many parts of the UK and Ireland, with below-average temperatures for the meteorological winter of 2011-12 as a whole.
“Of course, there will be some moderation at times with geographical variations, but the overall theme for this winter will be very cold and snowy.”
Act now - just in case
Regardless of the vagaries of weather forecasting, the Forum of Private Business (FPB) has advised businesses - particularly SMBs - to act now in case there is another big freeze. Jane Bennett, campaigns head at FPB, says the past few years have demonstrated the UK’s susceptibility to extreme weather.
“Prevention is also better than cure. Something as simple as making sure water pipes are lagged could save a business thousands in lost revenue if it has to close because of flooding,” says Bennett. “Businesses need to think about their contingency plans now.”
Bennett points to YouGov’s Omnibus SME survey, which found that 13 per cent of small businesses respondents were “seriously” affected by last winter’s bad weather, with 37 per cent suffering weather-related problems to some degree.
She says firms should regularly review their basic DR plans. Although insurance payouts are sometimes possible in the event of a shutdown, turnover can collapse afterwards as customer data is lost, calls are unanswered and customers go elsewhere.
Highlander MD Steve Brown tells CRN about the skills he learned on the pitch and brought to the boardroom
Reports suggest Dell is pursuing a straightforward IPO, contradicting existing plans to buy out tracking stock holders
Analysts predict upturn in PC market next year, but 2017 to remain plagued by components shortages
Neil Sawyer claims he has 'never seen so many conversations about a new method of investing in workplace technology'