Last week our very reliable email provider suffered a disk failure that left a very small percentage of their users without access to their mailboxes and unable to receive or send emails. I was one of those unlucky few and this is the story of what happened and the lessons I learned from the experience.

What happened

From my point of view it all started last Thursday when I came to shut down my computer at the end of the working day. Outlook said it still had messages that had not been sent, but being in a hurry I thought “Oh well” and exited anyway and shut down.

In the evening my mobile phone was very quiet (no email pings) but also very hot and losing charge much faster than usual. Going into email on the phone I noticed that I hadn’t had any emails since 3pm and that the app was continually refreshing, but it was late so I turned off the phone (so that it didn’t catch fire overnight – I am a cautious individual) and went to bed.

In the morning I turned on the phone, hoping that the restart would have sorted the problem and worrying that the phone was dying. The same thing happened and the phone was still running very hot, so I went onto the computer – no new emails and none sent since about 3pm yesterday. I then went onto my other email account (yes, IT people can be very cautious!) and found that it worked. So, the problem wasn’t the phone dying (phew!) nor the computer but my main work email account was in trouble.

At least I knew that I could communicate with the world via the other account, but still worried about whether people could reach me. Fortunately my business partner’s account was unaffected, so at least people could contact me via her, and the phone was working (if hot to handle!).

The next step was to trying and get to the account via the web access – it said that the mailbox “appeared to be unavailable”, so it was time to ring for support. Yes, they had had a disk failure and some accounts were affected but they couldn’t tell which ones, so had to wait until people phoned them. They then went through a lengthy process of re-establishing email for me – no lost data and working email in time for the bank holiday weekend.

Lessons Learnt

1. Choose reliable supplier

The email provider came out well from this – their support in a crisis was good. We won’t be moving away from them as a result. They can be happy with their disaster recovery plans – well done! Outsourcing your services is always a risk, so it’s worth taking recommendations and investigating who you choose before you commit. This is one provider who is reasonably priced for small businesses and we can continue to recommend.

2. You need a disaster recovery plan

When you lose any vital service in your business even if it is only for a few hours, you need to know how to react and recover even if it is only for. The first thing is not to panic and to help this it is useful to have plans in place to which you can refer. Often the process of creating the plans in the first place means that the method of recovery or carrying on is there already. They don’t have to be complicated; after all, if you are panicking and faced with complex instructions it doesn’t help much. I suggest you make them very simple.

3. Have multiple options

In our case, having two email addresses, even if one is less known and used, meant that I could still communicate if necessary. Also, having access to email via different routes (phone, Outlook, web) meant that I could diagnose more accurately where the problem lay and work out who to contact.

A similar approach to other disasters will help; always have a back-up method, even if it’s paper.

Peace returns

Everything is now back to normal; I’m getting junk emails again, as well as proper ones, so all is right with the world. My phone is no longer running hot and the charge use is back to normal. I’d never have guessed that you really do have a phone glowing red in a crisis, but you learn something every day.

Now I suggest you all go and review your disaster recovery plans, just in case it happens to you.