WTC Attacks Have IT Rethinking Storage

One of the most amazing sights of the many staggering images of Sept. 11 was the blizzard of paper that swirled amid the cloud of dust around the collapsing World Trade Center towers.

One of the most amazing sights of the many staggering images of Sept. 11 was the blizzard of paper that swirled amid the cloud of dust around the collapsing World Trade Center towers.

At companies recovering from the catastrophe the question arose, which of those millions of documents were scanned and digitized and which were not?

"Whatever was scanned was saved," said Ann Mottola, assistant vice-president of customer service technology at Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, which occupied floors 17 though 31 in the World Trade Centers north tower. Empire lost about two days worth of snail mail, and has since relocated to a number of facilities in New York and Pennsylvania. Of 1,914 employees in Tower One, nine--including four IT staff members--remain unaccounted for, said Mottola. Three workers are in hospital burn units, she said.

Many companies are examining their preparedness in the wake of the disaster are re-evaluating digital scanning and archiving procedures and systems. IT managers and business leaders at those companies are asking if they are scanning the right documents and if they are being stored on a cost-effective and readily accessible medium.

"We found we would have probably been happier had we stored more digitized documents, rather than less, Mottola said, even though Empire has a comprehensive digital imaging system that has grown over the years to encompass nearly all the insurance carriers paperwork. Empire uses Unisys e-Workflow and Imaging system that access documents stored on WORM (write-once read many) laser disk arrays. Duplicate archived disks are permanently stored in separate locations.

When disaster struck, Empires mirrored facilities in Harrisburg, Pa., Middletown, N.Y., and Yorktown Heights, N.Y., were up and running within hours, she said. The biggest problem was not the document archives, she said, but in building a replacement mailroom to handle incoming correspondence. Mottola said Empire is continuing its efforts to move all paperwork to the optical storage system which began ten years ago with claim forms only.

Not all companies are prepared to digitize all documents, however, and just how far to go with a document imaging system is a thorny question for IT managers.

"People store lots of information, but less than 1 percent is used beyond initial use. The problem is knowing what that one percent is," said Mike Massey, vice-president and general manager, Xerox e-Services. At the same time, he asserted, "Customers are really starting to look at the TCO [total cost of ownership] of hard copy." Included in that is the replacement cost of the document and what staff is needed to store and access it.

Massey said Xerox e-Services offers a service in which it digitizes documents and stores the paper in a facility in Hot Springs Ark., while transmitting an electronic version of the file to a facility in Rochester, N.Y. Customers can access the archived documents from a Web browser.

But services like that are too rich for the blood of one IT manager.

"Weve been talking to companies that do online backups. Its just so expensive," said Jorje Abellas-Martin, vice president and CIO of Arnold Worldwide, an advertising agency based in Boston. Abellas-Martin is an eWEEK Corporate Partner.

"Due to the nature of our business, all our critical stuff is stored redundantly by our normal processes," he noted. To do more than that would mean instituting a comprehensive paperless policy, much like that of Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, that would scan and store business correspondence such as invoices. But that would cost more than his company can afford in the current economic climate, he said.

For now, he is using a company facility across the street to store archived data, achieving the goal of not keeping all critical files in one place, in Arnolds case, a high-rise Boston office building.

One IT manager in New York who asked to remain anonymous said after the disaster he developed a proposal for an advanced document imaging system in but is facing opposition from management. His company is in the process of moving to a new building and, "Document imaging would be a good way to reduce the number of file cabinets to be moved and the amount of space needed for them," he said.

At issue is the cost of "several hundred thousand dollars" for a system that would include central storage, full-fledged indexing, searching and retrieving, integrated security, a browser interface, and integration into other systems like e-mail. But he noted that eliminating paper is just the first step. Documents stored on CD-ROM need to be backed up off-site to guarantee their safety.

"Management suggested we sprinkle some scanning-stations around the company," he said, noting there was no provision for effective indexing and search or off-site archiving.

The problem of cost for a complete document management system could be mitigated in years to come with the advent of DVD-based systems, observers said.

"DVD will really help, although its not there yet," said Mottola. Those systems are still waiting in the wings, pending coalescence around DVD standards. The arrival of DVD systems based on those standards, combined with renewed awareness of archival permanence in the context of disaster recovery, could result in a new era of digital document storage.