Q&A: Helmut Porcher

As director of information systems for Technology Information and Educational Services (TIES), Helmut Porcher knows quite a bit about technology. The organization was created in 1967 as a nonprofit consortium to provide technology and information resources to school administrators, educators, and students. Today, TIES is owned by 37 Minnesota member school districts that represent about 400 schools with a total enrollment of more than 245,000 students. School CIO recently caught up with Porcher to learn how TIES helps member districts plan for the worst.

Q. How are you counseling members on planning for disasters?
A. Currently, we’re doing quite a bit with disaster recovery. Most of our efforts revolve around a focus group that’s meeting on a regular basis. Attendees can be anybody who we provide services to. In the meetings, they go step-by-step through the setup of disaster recovery plan.

Q. What are the steps?
A. First, districts need to perform a risk assessment to see just what might happen in the event of the worst-case scenario. Once they’ve done that assessment, the question becomes one of tolerance for unavailability in certain resources. We ask participants in the focus group to define what those resources are. From there, the process is more straightforward and includes things like maintaining a list of all of your suppliers, keeping a complete inventory of all technology resources within the school district, and so on.

Q. Should districts do this process alone or with help from outside firms?
A. That all depends on the district. Things like a risk assessment are best when done by a consultant. That’s not to say that schools can’t do it themselves, it’s just that an outside party usually has a better handle on being completely objective. Most of the districts that belong to TIES have chosen to handle the assessment and disaster planning on their own. That’s why they participate in our focus group!

Q. So what other key questions should schools ask themselves in preparing a plan?
A. We could talk about key questions for days. Do you have contractual agreements that require you to have your IT information accessible? If you’re a school district and you’re doing your own in-house processing of payroll, are there contractual commitments that you made with the teachers union? When we’re talking about offsite backup—do they provide support? Do they have the same equipment? Do you need to provide your own? What type of network infrastructure do they have? What is the estimated amount of numbers or days to get back up and running? Will they do offsite data replication?

Q. Those are a lot of questions. What’s the most important one to ask?
A. For our schools, the key question is: What are the legal requirements for information that a district must back up? In Minnesota, districts are required by law to have disaster backups for certain types of data such as student records, student information, and private things like that. Other states may have similar laws, so before a school district sits down to craft a disaster recovery plan, they need to check into it.

Q. Do you have sample disaster recovery plans you can share?
A. We don’t have sample plans, but our focus group is working on a template. They are going through the process of modifying it to meet their own local needs. For those who are interested in following the progress of this effort or in learning more about TIES, visit our Web site at www.ties.k12.mn.us.

Matt Villano is contributing editor of School CIO.