Snow Lessons

It’s about this time of year that – in many countries in the northern hemisphere – they start getting the gritters and snow-ploughs out, and prepare them for the winter. Take note: Christmas is not far away!

Much of the time, living in the country is a joy: turning the lights off at night reveals the black shadows of the Downs cut out from the glittering vault of stars, with just the soft roar of the distant sea. Back in the bitter nights of a few winters ago when those downs were deep in snow, that joy was tempered by the tougher realities of life, being snowed in for a few days. Thankfully with heat, light, broadband, and a trusty spade, it proved no disaster, but for many it was another hard blow during the long recession.

Surviving in harsh environments demands a balance between self and group. You have to watch and help yourself, and watch and help the group of which you are a part. Too many here lounged in front of the telly, whining that the Council had not yet cleared their roads and pavements, and that they don’t have the same problems in Norway.

Of course many other countries have laws or policies that oblige citizens to clear snow. Here the indolent muttered about possible liability in the event that someone had an accident on an area that they had cleared – an excuse as bizarre as it was feeble when pavements were glazing over to skating tracks.

The weather may still be pleasant, economies slowly on the mend, but now, well before that first winter storm, we need to re-visit the contingency plans that should have kept us running despite the challenges of previous winters. How did your battery-backup system (UPS) cope with power cuts? Were you left to type in gloves because the heating was inadequate? When staff and colleagues were marooned in snowdrifts, or like me in their homes, were they able to keep the business afloat?

It is all too easy to over-rate the threat posed by Trojans and malicious software, encouraged by the partisan pronouncements of security software vendors and security experts, and to overlook the commonplace of fire, flood, freeze, and sundry fiasco.

Sometimes relatively inexpensive tricks, such as enabling VPN in your firewall, keeping an off-site backup, or ensuring remote access to your email, can make the difference between minor inconvenience and complete calamity. Thinking through different scenarios, brainstorming solutions and their potential weaknesses, should be a regular activity of those responsible for business and SOHO computer systems.

In general, as predicted by the ‘KISS’* principle, the simplest measures make for the most robust defences. Carefully integrated, Cloud computing may yet prove a big step forward in resilience, but is currently vulnerable to many points of potential failure. If your documents are tucked away in Tallahassee when you have fallen back to a MacBook dangling off dial-up in deepest Devon, then you need better alternatives. On the other hand, if your only possible Internet connection is via your iPhone, iCloud could be ideal.

Another issue that revealed itself in previous winters was limited capacity, when lots of users decide to access the Cloud at the same time: precisely the pattern that you would expect when nature tests our contingency planning. A laptop loaded with local applications and even intermittent narrowband connection is a better lifeline for most of us.

On the fifth day after first snowfall, we finally cut clear tracks up the hill to the main road. It was galling that the first vehicles up the road were driven by those who had risked no more than pressure sores on their bums whilst we had been digging and chipping. But we had relied on self-help, had pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, and not just waited for others.

* KISS = keep it simple, stupid.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 26 issue 6, 2009.