Case study: Broker prepares network for worst

What's your disaster-recovery plan when it comes to your network? For Producers Energy Marketing, which goes by the name ProEnergy, the answer is a network on wheels.

In the event that a hurricane forces ProEnergy to flee its facility, the company can literally roll its 100-node network out the door to a location off-site, where it can be up and running in a matter of hours, said Gary Gannon, information technology director at ProEnergy, a broker of natural gas in Houston and a subsidiary of Cinergy Corp in Cincinnati.

Fortunately, ProEnergy hasn't had to move the network because of a disaster. But to make sure the process works, Gannon's team disassembled the network and moved it to another floor in their building. The process took four hours.

During a real move, the racks and computer systems would be loaded onto a truck headed for Texas A&M University, three hours away. ProEnergy would set up shop at the university's 150-acre research and engineering site. The site is a low concrete building that contains phone connections and a power supply so the company's five IT staffers (and 100 employees who would also go to the site) can continue to work. Internet access would be done via dial-up modems. ProEnergy would pay telephone connection charges and a fee to use the facility, but Gannon didn't say how much.

Ideally, the move would be made at night to avoid disrupting business processes - one minute of network downtime during peak trading hours can cost the company millions in lost revenue. But Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate. If flooded roads force ProEnergy to stay in Houston, for example, the network could be moved to a lower floor to avoid high winds.

Analysts said one downside of the mobile network is the tediousness involved in moving it.

Yet the success of the plan rests on the fact that the ProEnergy staff can move the network extremely quickly and reliably, said Michael Speyer, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston.

"The mobile network is a smart idea," said James Taylor, a consultant at OnSource Consulting. But, he said, ProEnergy also needs a solid recovery plan in case of a fire.

Gannon said a fire would shut ProEnergy down for about four days. Though without a solid plan, Gannon is confident that he could replace damaged equipment within 48 hours.

Why No Redundancy?

Some companies, for their disaster plans, set up redundant networks. Gannon said that approach isn't cost-efficient because he would have to maintain two or more of everything. And because ProEnergy uses standard platforms such as Intel hardware, which has short life cycles, it would cost more to upgrade two networks.

Given those facts, the model is one that could be a cost-effective way for a small company such as ProEnergy to handle disaster recovery, said Craig Johnson, a consultant at the PITA Group in Oregon.

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