The Tech Herald

A winter incident response plan for the home worker

by Steve Ragan - Feb 3 2011, 02:10

A winter incident response plan for the home worker. (IMG: J.Anderson)

Itís cold and icy in Indianapolis. Honestly, itís like this across most of the U.S., and now the east coast is getting their share of the fun. Whenever there is a serious storm, there are always talks about incident response and recovery. Yet, they only focus on IT departments and teams. What about the staff working from home?

Monday evening, Indianapolis started to see the first wave of ice and sleet that would soon cover the streets in more than an inch of chaos. I was working on recording the Southern Fried Security Podcast when power went out. The computer that was running for work just blinked and shutdown.

Normally, this would cause panic, but this time I just sighed and let Martin, Andy, and Joseph know I couldnít record via Twitter.

So why wasnít I worried? Because I knew that I would have a rough week this week thanks to weather. I took a little time to prepare, and just figured it would be easier to wait it out.

Here is what I did to prepare. Feel free to leave comments with ideas and other suggestions. My hope is that if another storm hits, this will help someone working at home have an easier time with the stress of missing work.

Backups:

When my main work system crashed Monday evening, I had already backed up all of the email and work on the system. I knew the storm was heading my way, so I started backing things up quickly.

Backups are important. If you work from home they can mean all the difference between a nightmare work week and one where you are simply frustrated with the prospect of playing catch-up.

However, before backups are useful, you need to remember to make them. This is easier said than done when you work from home. You have meetings to take, notes and reports to deliver, and actual work to do. Backups are often the last thing on the list.

I admit - Iím not always on top of my backups. Iíve lost stories and notes because of my epic backup fails. These lessons are why I started taking more care to back things up.

For my backups, I use two things. External drives and a freeware program I discovered years ago. The freeware application, Personal Backup, works exactly as I need it to. It delivers archives to an old computer that I have converted into a homebrew NAS (Network-attached Storage) device. I have reminders to run Personal Backup monthly, but often run it weekly now, just in case.

As for email, I use Outlook Personal Folders Backup. However, there are several ways to backup email. For Thunderbird users, you can manage backups with various add-ons and Mac users have their own solutions. They are worth checking out.

However, there are easier things to use to manage backups. Not everyone working at home can simply build an NAS. While the unlimited plans are gone, you can use services like Mozy to cover backups for your entire home office. The cost is affordable and the ability to recover from data loss is priceless.

Finally, while making backups is a great start to a recovery plan, remember to test them from time to time and make sure that they are working properly.

The easiest test for me is to restore a recent backup. (I make backups prior to testing the recovery option.) If it is working, then all of the important data is where it should be. If there are issues, I can deal with them then.

Batteries and the power of a Smartphone:

Laptops, cell phones, and flashlights all run on batteries. The desktop, as I mentioned, simply crashed when power went out in my house on Monday. There was no saving any open documents or work. However, the laptop had a full charge, and I was able to save things and shut it down properly.

Itís always a good idea to use battery power last when working at home. Most laptops work with docking stations and port replicators. This saves battery power for when you need it most.

However, these things can be costly, so check with your boss about ordering them. If you are self employed, they are worth the expense in the long run.

Always keep cell phones charged. I know it isnít the greenest thing to do, but unless Iím out of the office, my Droid Pro remains on the charger. When I lost power, I was able to report the outage to the power company, as well as communicate to my friends on Twitter that I was ok, thanks to a fully charged phone and 3G Internet services.

Once power was gone, my fancy VoIP system (Bright House) was useless. Seems pointless to even have one huh? Itís not, they are useful, but in an emergency or incident response plan, you cannot rely on them. Again, a fully charged cell phone is worth its weight in gold when you need communications.

If Web access was mission critical for me, in this case it wasnít, I could have used my Droidís Wi-Fi Hotspot abilities to access the Web from the laptop. Just remember, services like this will kill a Smartphoneís battery, and it is better to use that sparingly.

An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) is a must for the home office. The desktop isnít connected to one currently, but I will change that once the weather clears some. However, I have my NAS connected to it, and that saved my backups from possible corruption and the NAS itself from damage.

Candles and other things for the house:

Now that the tech side of my personal incident response plan is out of the way, here are some other things I used this week that are worth a mention.

Candles were the first thing touched once the house went dark. Cheap and affordable, they are a great source of light. However, when keeping them near technology, watch them closely. Obviously you want to avoid setting fire to computers and your home office. I keep my candles in glass, but use what works best for you as long as it is safe.

Flashlights, large and small, are also handy little things. I was able to move around the home office with ease thanks to a 10.00 flashlight from Wal-Mart, and a stock of batteries from the Dollar General. They were a huge help as I went to unplug computers and printers.

Also worth a mention are blankets and other things. If you have to keep working for some reason, keep warm. Without power, you can likely forget the furnace kicking on. So hand-warming packets and layered clothes are just a given for me.

I also keep a little radio in the office for news and alerts. You donít need anything special or large, just something that runs on batteries that can allow you to monitor the weather.

There are other little miscellaneous things, such as paper and pens, which will come in handy. Thanks to various security conferences, I have tons of pens and sticky notepads in the office for jotting things down.

Relax itís only work:

You can only do so much when a winter storm hits and ruins your work week. Backups will save your data, and battery powered devices can help maintain communications. However, the best incident response plans for the home worker should start with the word relax.

School is closed on Thursday, the third day in a row here in Indianapolis. So in addition to my workload, I have a house of bored kids. At times like this, my incident response plan includes dealing with them.

They will want attention, and while they understand the importance and responsibility of working from home, they are kids and ultimately care little about a new press release or email monitoring.

We turned the blackout into an impressive event of flashlight Uno, and as normal, dad was beaten soundly by the little card sharks. After the game, they helped me make sure the laptops were all shut down and that the batteries in the flashlights and radio were all working.

From there I used them to help me check and clear the office to ensure we could move in and out in total darkness if needed. Sure, it was busy work, but it made them feel included in what I was doing, and I was happy to have them help.

Home offices are about more than work. Your family lives there, and when you need to deal with power outages and disasters, they are very much part of the business plan.

Most of the blackout in my house, when not being scammed by Uno sharks, was spent discussing incident response and what to do if trapped in the house due to a storm you know is coming. It was a productive and interesting conversation with them.

Power returned, after several rolling blackouts, on Tuesday. Since then, weíve only lost power two or three times. Thanks to keeping things unplugged, battery power, and backups, I was able to pickup where I left off this morning when I returned to work.

As mentioned, Iím interested in hearing what you do to prepare for and recover from weather related incidents if you work from home. Leave a comment and share your thoughts. Perhaps we can flesh this story out and make a solid plan of action.

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