Product Recalls Require Disaster Planning

By Don Wilmott

Two years ago my dishwasher was recalled and I couldn’t have been happier. It was old anyway, and the cash payment I received was enough to subsidize a nice new one. If only all product recalls yielded such fortunate tales.

Whether its cars, cribs, or carrot juice, recalls are usually a royal pain. But when your daily IT operations are involved, you’re suddenly in the hot seat. Every laptop in the organization has to be brought in – or sent out – for repairs? Any or all of your desktop PCs may burst into flames at any time? Are you kidding? How are you going to manage a crisis like that?

Recent headlines have attracted plenty of attention to this "burning" issue. Case in point: Sony, which just announced a recall of more than half a million Vaio laptops after reports came in of dangerous overheating that could cause system damage or even injury. Sony has posted a firmware update for the BIOS, so maybe this problem won’t cause major disruptions, but still¿ "The satisfaction of our customers is our number one priority, and we will work diligently to ensure that your VAIO notebook is in top working order. We apologize for any inconvenience and appreciate your support in this matter," wrote Sony. OK, apology accepted.

The Sony news came one month after HP announced a recall of 50,000 laptop batteries after concerns about overheating and potential fires were voiced. For this problem, a physical battery replacement was required. Woe to the IT department that may have had a few hundred of those laptops.

Exhibit three is Dell, which is back in court talking about a case from 2004, when the company was sued for selling Optiplex computers with faulty capacitors that eventually failed. The suit alleges that Dell continued to sell the hardware even after it knew of the problems. (There’s a taste of Toyota in that detail.)

A North Carolina company called AIT sued Dell after it leased 2,000 Dell Optiplex systems to its clients. The losses: $16 million from cancelled contracts and $22 million for discounts it offered to customers. Dell says it shipped nearly 12 million of these computers and that 97 percent of them were likely to fail over three years. A win for AIT could cost Dell up to $120 million.
This is scary stuff, isn’t it? Not until I read all these reports at around the same time did it strike met that mass hardware failure or recall is something that actually requires an IT disaster plan, just like the threat of a fire, flood, or earthquake does. Strange, then, that no one seems to have penned the ultimate list of "best practices" for surviving a big computer recall. Reams have been written about recovering from data loss disasters, but there’s scant info out there about how to guard against the productivity loss of suddenly learning that a big chunk of your hardware infrastructure may be pulled out of service, even temporarily. Do you have a plan?

The starting point, it seems to me, is simply to know what you have and what its status is. As we’ve seen, notifications and recalls come fast and furiously, and if you don’t have your installed base under control you won’t even know when you’ve got a potential problem.

The next step: centralize your data and float what you can in the cloud, not just as a way to protect your data but to give anyone who needs access to it the ability to get it from any Net-connected computer or laptop. Did five laptops burst into flames? OK, worry about the lawsuits later but first concentrate on getting backup and loaner equipment, and make sure no one spends a day without data. Worry enough, but not too much. The vast majority of hardware is robust enough to make it through its lifecycle without drama. But every once in a while you’ve got to ready to go into backup mode. Fast.