Feature: Storm tests IT backup plans

One Carolina banking chain popped its nightly backup tapes into tubs, ready for immediate departure to its disaster recovery site in Philadelphia.

A Marion, South Carolina textile maker took an extra step, shifting day-to-day computing to its IBM AS/400 in New Orleans. And in Jacksonville, Florida, a financial institution had to relocate about 100 employees to Atlanta.

Packing 155-mph winds and approaching the size of Texas at its peak, Hurricane Floyd last week forced information-technology staffers up and down the East Coast to prepare for the worst.

Although the mammoth storm wound up skirting the Florida coast and lessening in intensity by the time it touched land in North Carolina, IT staffs had no option but to stay on alert, readying alternate power sources, backing up systems tapes and, in some cases, relocating their computer operations and personnel out of Floyd's path. Mandatory evacuations gave some companies little alternative. Comdisco, a $US4.1 billion Rosemont, Illinois company that can reconstitute a company's front - and back-office systems out of harm's way, fielded disaster declarations from 29 companies - the greatest number to take that step for any single catastrophic event. Only 379 companies have done so in 19 years, a company official said.

"The predictions were very dire with the size and the strength of this storm," said Allan Graham, senior vice president of operations at Comdisco.

"Most Floridians have experienced a number of hurricanes over the years, and they're a fairly good judge of what's going to cause them some substantial [trouble]."

One Comdisco customer replicated its Jacksonville, Florida site at its Connecticut facility. Another chose Denver. Others opted for Comdisco relocation centres in Atlanta, Chicago, Orlando, New Jersey, Texas and Toronto. Three customers were fortunate to get all-clear signs from officials at home before making the switch.

Most relocations involved back-office systems that required only four or five people to restore operations.

To keep its lines open, Merrill Lynch moved more than 50 key workers, including IT staff, from its Jacksonville call centre to an out-of-state site, and routed customer calls to Denver and Somerset, New Jersey.

Blumenthal Mills took matters into its own hands late Tuesday night, switching all day-to-day computing from its Marion, South Carolina-based IBM AS/400 to a look-alike machine in New Orleans.

Normally, the Louisiana-based AS/400 serves as a development and hot backup machine. But with Floyd coming, IT staffers at the textile manufacturer verified that the machines were synchronised and that all the fields were correct. (A practice run a few weeks ago in advance of Hurricane Dennis helped.) "We get used to category 3 and 4 storms, but when they're strong category 4, we worry," said Ed Griffin, an IT manager at Blumenthal Mills, which is 35 miles inland. "Our main concerns are the high winds and flooding due to rain and hurricanes, which often spur tornadoes."

One of the biggest problems is getting IT staffers to the office safely. Jim Koontz, manager of information systems at Central Carolina Bank & Trust Co in Durham, North Carolina, said he dodged power lines in the aftermath of Hurricane Fran in 1996. One of the bank's systems programmers needed a ride after a tree fell on her car.

Regulators require banks to have business contingency plans in place, so the bank's emergency management team, which includes IT staffers, was prepared. Hotels were secured for critical workers. Backup tapes prepared on a nightly basis were set aside in tubs, ready to leave at a moment's notice for the company's disaster recovery site in Philadelphia.

Central Carolina Bank & Trust already has equipment wired to its backup generators as a matter of course. After Hurricane Fran, staffers had taken further steps to ensure that all equipment was hooked into the company's diesel generator, Koontz said.

"With a hurricane, you know it's coming," Koontz said. "You do have a chance to make sure everything is very well organised and coordinated."

Experiences from Hurricane Fran - which caused power outages that ranged from days to weeks - prompted many inland-based Carolina companies to take extra precautions. Martin Marietta Materials in Raleigh, North Carolina, shut down systems Wednesday at 5pm and had staffers unplug all PCs and monitors and run complete backups of all servers earlier than usual.

One of the backup tapes was sent to its storage company, and another set of backups went home with one of the administrators "just in case", said John Berggren, a senior support technician.

Hurricanes leave many companies relying on older technology. The Home Depot Inc opted for telephones and conference calls rather than e-mail or computerised supply-chain systems to make sure extra plywood, batteries and other emergency supplies reached stores from Virginia to Florida. Last Monday and Tuesday, Home Depot trucked 580,000 sheets of plywood to Florida, well above its typical two-day shipment of 26,000.

"We rely on ... store managers talking to district managers in the field, asking them what they can give up to their brother and sister stores," said Don Harrison, a Home Depot spokesman.

A spokeswoman for Lowe's in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, said individual stores called or faxed requests to its command centres in Valdosta, Georgia, and Statesville, North Carolina, which input the inventory into computers.

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