New York, New Jersey financial sector well prepared for Hurricane Sandy

Lessons learned from 9/11 lead to virtualization helping enterprises, cloud services buttressing SMBs

The financial services sector in New York City and New Jersey are dusting off disaster recovery plans and bracing for a storm that could bring 80 m.p.h.-plus winds and major flooding.

Hurricane Sandy could not have been hyped more by weather tracking services. Some are predicting "the storm of the century." Others, such as Henry Margusity, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather, said the storm could bring a "disaster of biblical proportions."

But analysts and industry experts agree, New York and New Jersey aren't pushovers when it comes to potential disasters -- particularly their financial services business sectors. The lessons from the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were not lost on them, according to Kevin Knox, a research director with research firm Gartner.

"I think after 9/11 in particular, there was notice taken to how close a lot of the data centers were. Since 9/11, we've seen a lot of work to separate the data centers to ensure a regional disaster wouldn't potentially take out multiple data centers," Knox said.

The New York Stock Exchange is currently working with New York City officials to assess the readiness of safety, power, water and transportations systems.

"At this time all U.S.-based NYSE Euronext Exchnages plan to operate on a normal business schedule on Monday, Oct. 29 and on the days following," said NYSE spokesman Eric Ryan.

IT systems over the past decade have become more hardened in terms of recovery time and recovery point objectives (RTOs and RPOs), or the time it takes to get systems back on line and minimizing the amount of data lost during that time. Over the past decade, RTOs have dropped from 48 hours to four or five hours in many cases, he said.

"The finance guys are probably some of the most aggressive as far as having disaster recovery capabilities, both in how quickly they can recover as well as ensuring they're mitigating risk," he added.

In many case, banks and brokerages will have two data centers in relatively close proximity -- 20 or 30 miles apart -- for business continuity where they replicate data in real time between the two to ensure if one goes down, the other can still operate. Then, they'll have a third disaster recovery site to ensure a regional disaster will still not cripple their operations, Knox said.

Knox said virtualization has had a lot to do with better RPOs and RTOs with regard to x86 server infrastructures in larger companies, and for small- to medium-sized businesses, SaaS cloud services have allowed for better disaster recovery planning than at any time in history.

"Are there going to be companies where things do happen? Of course, if a huge regional disaster occurs. Relatively speaking they're pretty well prepared," Knox said.

Most weather models have hurricane Sandy making landfall along the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast Coast between Monday and Tuesday.

According to Weather.com, hurricane Sandy's winds will be strong over a large area and capable of downing or damaging many trees and "possibly blowing out windows in skyscrapers." The storm may also bring three to 10 inches of rainfall in along the coast.

Forecasters across the Northeast have said the storm could cause billions of dollars of damage to public infrastructure, businesses and private residences.

Walter Dearing , vice president of recovery services and customer resources support at SunGard, said customers are already executing portions of disaster recovery plans.

SunGard, which provides remote business continuity and hosting services, operates two types of facilities on the East Coast: one houses data center equipment that can be turned on and accessed by user companies; the others are "mega centers" where employees can go to work where desks and computers are readily available and pre-configured to go.

"Our philosophy is we encourage customers to test and test frequently just for this type of situation," he said.

Hurricanes, Dearing said, actually offer better preparation time than other natural or man-made disasters that come without warning. Dearning compared forecasts of hurricane Sandy to Irene in 2011, which is the fifth costliest storm in U.S. history and 1991's Hurricane Bob, which at the time was among the ten costliest hurricanes in the U.S.

Hurricane Irene struck in Aug., 2011, brushing along the Mid-Atlantic until making its final landfall Brooklyn. Irene caused massive flooding and widespread wind damage, causing 56 deaths and leaving millions without power. It was estimated to have cause around $15.6 billon in damage.

In July 1991, after brushing past North Carolina's Outer Banks, Long Island in New York, Hurricane Bob made landfall on Rhode Island, and eventually caused $1.5 billion in damage to the upper Northeast including 17 deaths.

SunGard has hosting centers in Orlando; Atlanta; Herndon, Va.; Philadelphia; Carlstadt, N.J.; Queens; and Boston.

According to Marc DeCastro, an analyst with IDC Financial Insights, the impact of a hurricane is always two-fold: The impact to IT systems and business infrastructure; and the human element. What employees should be preparing to work from home or getting hotel rooms near a disaster recovery site, and who should be manning data centers during the storm.

"All those plans are being dusted off and reviewed by executives already and they're being communicated to employees," DeCastro said.

Advancements in mobile technologies will no doubt also play a key role, as they have in the recent past, in keeping communications up during and after the storm, DeCastro said.

"Especially in banking, there are so many electronic channels available. Maybe we don't have electricity, but maybe I can still communicate with my mobile phone," he said. "I can charge off car battery, and if I need to transfer money or make a payment, I can still do it with my mobile device."

"From a systems standpoint, we've had lots of practice," he added. "I think employees will be more involved in personal cleanup initiatives. You're talking 60 million people who are in the path of this storm. There could be a lot of turmoil as far as people thinking 'I need to protect my own property and family.'"

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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