What will it take to continue operating in the face of a calamity that affects your dealership's computers and data? That depends on how dependent your employees are on the network to perform their daily tasks.

Although your sales staff can probably sell cars from any physical location, without computers your ability to document sales, arrange financing or leases, and run the service and body shops would be severely hampered. That's where an information technology business continuity plan can help.

In its broadest sense, such a plan encompasses disaster recovery for every aspect of your information technology system. It documents critical processes, maintains data, software and software backups, offers quick access to replacement hardware and facilities, and documents a plan of action. It could keep your dealership running when competitors are down.

Calamity avoidance

Most potential IT calamities can be avoided with some planning. Consider these situations, which occur regularly:

  • Your software vendor loses its only programmer knowledgeable in the customized application you run.

  • The only person in your dealership with technical support knowledge resigns, leaving you without system passwords and knowledge of how to shut down that person's remote system access.

  • Your server hard drive fails and the backup tape is blank. You find out the backup had not been working properly for months, and you can't recover the data.

  • Your data lines go down due to either human error or natural disaster.

Plan essentials

Despite these and other risks, most dealerships lack a formal business continuation plan for IT. The basic elements include the following:

Current vendor emergency contact information

Vendors have personnel changes just like everyone else. Telephone numbers change and pagers can get lost.

Written system backup procedures

Store system backup files off-site. Also periodically test the restore of backup tapes to ensure the processes work properly.

Application source code and data backup procedures

Back up the application source code off-site regularly or have the vendor store it in escrow.

Procedures for changing key system passwords

Don't keep system administration passwords only in a technician's head. Have them in writing and locked up.

Procedures for maintaining network system documentation

Keep system documentation current and store a copy off site.

User instructions on storing data

Store user data on servers that are backed up. Or if they're stored locally on individual workstations, have them backed up regularly.

Anti-virus definition file update procedures

Update virus definition files at least monthly and whenever a new high-risk virus is released.

Document roles and responsibilities of staff in case of an IT disaster

Your people need to know what's expected of them, and it's effective to put that on paper.

The human factor

Although the technology infrastructure often is the focus of a disaster recovery plan, executing the plan always depends on some level of human involvement.

Communication is essential for success. Verify that support resources are available and that roles and responsibilities have been clearly communicated. Contracts should include response time requirements for vendor personnel and the appropriate means of notification.

And remember to keep your cell phone charged. If you can't access data for the manufacturer or check vehicle availability with another dealer, you always can do it the old-fashioned way — call.

Gloria Schneider is an associate with Plante & Moran's technology consulting team, specializing in working with auto dealers.