Reporters Notebook: Disaster Recovery

Upper management is finally listening, and IT executives have plenty to say.

Its commonplace to say that the Sept. 11 attacks have changed everything. It may seem disrespectful to say so, but some things have changed for the better. For example, finally, top corporate management is paying attention to disaster recovery preparedness.

That theme emerged from the Technology Managers Forums "Technology Strategies for Business Recovery" conference in New York last week. I attended the eWEEK-sponsored fall conference this year as I have since 1996. (For information on eWEEKs Best Practices Awards, see For four consecutive years, the conference was held at Windows on the World at the top of the World Trade Centers North Tower, and it was scheduled to be held there again this year--until Sept. 11. After that, the TMFs president, Priscilla Tate, leaped into action and secured another venue, Bridgewaters, in the South Street Seaport area.

During my brief remarks, I asked that the group observe a moment of silence to remember to Windows on the World workers, including two in particular, Khamladai Singh and John F. Puckett, who had been so helpful and considerate in past years.

The conferences topic was changed at the 11th hour to business recovery, which drew an exceptional turnout. Disaster planning is on everyones mind, and that came out in the panel discussions.

"Attitudes about disaster recovery have changed. Its a shame it took something like that to make it happen," said Bruce Johnson, director of IS at the law firm of Robinson Silverman in New York, in one discussion.

Previously, Johnson had a very hard time making people aware. Law firms like his tend to be on the trailing edge of technology, and expenditures are made very conservatively since they come out of the pockets of the firms partners. But now concern is high throughout the company, and no scenario is beyond consideration, he said, "Youre now thinking about all kinds of possibilities."

"Previously we had played out creeping disaster scenarios," said David Greenbaum, vice president of Fleet Securities. But now Fleet is looking at more scenarios involving complete destruction, he said. Fleet was lucky, but just barely: Its data center was 400 feet away from Ground Zero.

Paul Honey, director of global contingency planning at Merrill Lynch, echoed that theme. "Now we are thinking of people issues, such as evacuation," he said. Merrill Lynch evacuated 9,000 people from lower Manhattan, he said.

Honey was not the only one to note human factors. For example, Greg Ferris, executive director of global business continuity planning at Morgan Stanley, noted that grief counselors proved to be essential. Many people were so distracted by the event that they needed help in "getting back to normal and being productive again," he said.

Where people will work after the disasters is an issue. "Some people wont work in the Empire State Building anymore," said Joel Plaut, CTO of Avantrust.

Companies need to be far more open-minded than ever about allowing employees to work from home, said Greenbaum. "How people feel is very important," he said.

Employee ranking

Disaster recovery task forces need to categorize people according to their level of essentiality. This can get dicey because, in theory, a company should have no non-essential employees. "Its important to make all people feel that they are essential," said Honey. Still in an emergency, some will be more essential to resuming operations than others, and its necessary to have a ranking of employees according to that criterion.

The panelists noted some surprising responses in the wake of the attack: Verizon shut off the cell phone network because the carrier was afraid it could be used to set off a bomb. It shut down incoming calls to allow outgoing calls only, since those might be placed by people in need of help.

Greenbaum noted that electronic pagers generally worked well, but their performance was adversely affected by the dust cloud.

Greenbaum and others offered some pointers for the future: For example, its a good idea to request the network design layout from telecommunications companies so you can see where the phone lines run. If two critical lines run through the same manhole, then you should request that one be rerouted, he said.

Roseanne McSorley, director of business continuity management for the Americas at Deutsche Bank Alex.Brown, said to make sure company buildings are at least 30 kilometers apart, since thats the basic nuclear blast radius.

Plaut said that when outsourcing disaster recovery services, be sure you preserve a repository of knowledge that is separate from the outsourcer.

Honey said that an even larger disaster, to which New York remains vulnerable, is a "category two" hurricane. And there is no better time than now to start discussing contingency planning with upper management.