Premier 100: Flexibility key to disaster recovery

If there's any lesson for IT managers to come out of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, one of the most critical is having management and technology flexibility. And Greg Meffert, chief technology officer and CIO for New Orleans, is a firm believer in both approaches.

From a technology perspective, a system with proven value after Katrina is voice over IP. When asked Monday about the importance of VoIP to New Orleans, Meffert opened his eyes wide and said simply, "Huge." He's so convinced of it that he believes it's "crazy" for governments to continue to rely on landlines for communication.

"It's not a cute, new sexy technology anymore. To me, VoIP is much more beefy," Meffert said in an interview. He also took part in a panel discussion at the Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference in Palm Desert, California.

New Orleans City Hall already had VOIP phones before the deadly storm hit on Aug. 29, and it has since been expanding the use of the technology. Meffert said that about half of the city is still without working landlines, but service to VoIP-enabled networks was re-established in a "matter of days" after Katrina.

Jan Rideout, CIO at Northrop Grumman Ship Systems, which has facilities in the New Orleans area, said that before the storm, the company had a three-year plan to put in VoIP and wireless networks. That rollout has since been accelerated to 18 months. "It's a big part of our recovery, and we believe it's the way to go," Rideout said.

While VoIP is winning plaudits, one technology practice that has clearly fallen out of favor is the use of tape backups. "One thing we have to think very seriously about is the backup scenario," said Rizwan Ahmed, who was recently named CIO for the state of Louisiana after serving as CIO of the Office of Group Benefits and Department of Natural Resources.

Ahmed said that IT managers need to store backups on a hard drive and replicate them off-site, so that "we have an easier way of actually replicating the data, because the tape is unreliable and also inefficient," he explained.

Panelists also stressed the need for management flexibility to ensure that systems can be operated even if employees can't make it into work. But taking care of employees -- making sure their needs are being met -- should be the first responsibility, said one panelist.

Tony Fuller, CIO of Rent-A-Center, had some 100 stores out of 2,800 affected by the hurricane. And although IT systems are important, "it's really that human element that keeps it all together and makes it happen or not happen," he said.

Meffert believes most IT plans don't consider major disasters, and the idea that key personnel will arrive for work at a command center following major calamity is probably wishful thinking. More important, he argued, is the ability to re-create teams made up of people who can take on new tasks. "We were able to process payroll even before we had running water," Meffert said.

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