Empire Blue Cross IT group undaunted

Late yesterday, as Kenny Klepper, senior vice president of systems, technology and infrastructure at Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield finished explaining how his company had quickly reconstituted its systems after being blown out of 10 floors in the World Trade Center, he had to quickly respond to news of yet another potential terrorist attack.

After responding to a discreet tap on the door of his office in the temporary headquarters of Empire's IT department on the sixth floor of the deliberately hip W Hotel at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 49th Street, Klepper walked back in and abruptly ended a Computerworld interview by saying, "We had to evacuate the data center on Staten Island due to anthrax, and even though the data center is still operating, I have to go to the command center.'' The anthrax scare in the data center, originated by an employee who saw a suspicious piece of mail, ended up being a false alarm, said Empire spokeswoman Julie Gold Anderson. But the episode illustrated the difficulty of conducting business as usual in times that are far from normal.

However, as Klepper emphasized, he and Empire, the largest health insurer in New York State, have to conduct business 24 hours a day, seven days a week to serve the company's 4.4 million beneficiaries and their employers. This includes code development for a new Web-based interface for employers, maintenance of legacy code and, wearing his infrastructure hat, leasing temporary facilities while at the same time searching for a new headquarters in New York. These are jobs that in many other companies fall outside the portfolio of a technology vice president.

In the aftermath of the attack, Empire also reconfigured one of its automated call centers to track the whereabouts of the 1,900 employees who worked in the World Trade Center, with each confirmation entered into a constantly updated database. Empire lost nine employees and two consultants in the World Trade Center attacks.

Klepper was stymied to manage his people in the four days after the attack because on Sept.11 he had just arrived in Bangalore, India, to study the possibility of shifting some of his code maintenance to a facility operated by the India unit of IBM Corp.

Bruce Morlino, IBM's account representative for Empire, was in Bangalore with Klepper and quickly marshaled IBM resources to help support Klepper from a Bangalore hotel conference room. Morlino said this included two 24-hour open conference call voice circuits to New York, as well as direct e-mail connections through IBM's global network.

Klepper took a commercial flight to Frankfurt and an IBM-arranged jet charter to Montreal, and then returned the rest of the way home via van. The next week, he set about rebuilding Empire's physical and IT infrastructure. Over the past month and a half, Klepper has leased space in seven temporary facilities and signed another lease on a new headquarters building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Empire also has replaced all the equipment lost in the World Trade Center, including 265 servers, more than 2,200 desktops and monitors and 413 laptops. IBM supplied all this equipment, except for the servers, which were acquired from Compaq Computer Corp.

Some of the temporary locations, such as the W hotel, required a significant upgrade to their network infrastructure, Klepper said. "We're running a gigabit Ethernet now here in the W hotel,'' Klepper said, with a network connected to four T1 (1.54M bit/sec) circuits. That network supports the code development for a Web-based interface to the company's systems, which Klepper called "critical" to Empire's efforts to serve its customers. Despite the lost time and the lost code in the collapse of the World Trade towers, Klepper said, "we're going to get this done by the end of the year."

Shevin Conway, Empire's chief technology officer, said that while the company lost about "10 days' worth" of source code, the entire object-oriented executable code survived, as it had been electronically transferred to the Staten Island data center.

Despite the stress of the last month and the jury-rigged quarters used by the Empire IT staff, they still manage to conduct business as usual in unusual times. That's exemplified by a quick encounter between press relations manager Anderson and Mary Lee, a security guard at the W hotel. The two women quickly embraced and talked for a minute. "We haven't seen each other since Sept. 11,'' Anderson said, when they both walked out of the burning World Trade Center. Without any further explanation, she then proceeded to hunt for Klepper's office.

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