City Reshapes IT Systems to Help in Rebuilding Effort

NEW ORLEANS -- Hurricane Katrina struck just two weeks after Jeff Talley began running data center operations for the city of New Orleans via an outsourcing deal with Ciber Inc., his employer. On the ninth floor of City Hall, the storm's winds shook the building so hard that "you would lose your footing," said Talley, who stayed in the data center and slept on his office floor.

Afterward, the city's IT operations were a mess. Its main data center was protected inside City Hall, but problems with backup generators and universal power supplies caused numerous servers and disk drives to fail, Talley said. In addition, about 70% of the city's remote IT operations were in areas that were flooded. Some of the remote sites were damaged, and others were left inaccessible.

In the weeks immediately following the storm, routine IT activities, such as issuing paychecks off of the city's mainframe, became important to the survival of the municipal government. "We were afraid that if we didn't run payroll, we would lose some of the employees," said Mark Kurt, an IT manager who was named the city's chief technology officer two months ago.

New Orleans CTO Mark Kurt (left) and IT manager Jeff Talley are working to display key data via GIS technology.

New Orleans CTO Mark Kurt (left) and IT manager Jeff Talley are working to display key data via GIS technology.

Image Credit: Patrick Thibodeau

Since the storm, Kurt and Talley said in a joint interview late last month, the city has been restoring as well as reshaping its IT systems.

For instance, New Orleans has consolidated many of the remote IT operations into its main data center. The city has also installed server virtualization technology on its x86-based systems in order to improve utilization rates and help support a fail-over capability to a hot site that it's setting up at a facility owned by the city of Austin.

"The hot-site concept is so critical," Talley said. "You want to try to reduce the number of people that you have here [during an emergency]. You don't want people to have to go through a Category 5 [hurricane]."

In addition, the city has been working to aggregate data from building permits, crime reports and other documents and display it on maps through the use of geographic information system (GIS) technology. The IT team is also expanding the functionality of self-service kiosks for city residents, to automate processes such as applying for building permits.

The GIS data, which can be accessed from a Web-based user interface, lets city officials easily see where reconstruction activity is the strongest, based on factors such as the number of building permits being issued, Kurt said. He added that workers can also view information about the number of calls for city services, such as requests for street maintenance -- which gives them an indication of where people are living.

Now the city wants to add property and sales tax data as well as information about nuisance-property complaints to the GIS tool, according to Kurt. "Being in technology, it's certainly not my job to plan how the city rebuilds," he said. But, he added, the data-mapping work should help New Orleans officials make decisions on key issues, "from what schools you decide to open to where you put police officers."

Talley said that using the hot-site setup in Austin will be much less expensive than it would have been to work with a disaster recovery vendor. New Orleans officials also hope to get reimbursed for some of the new IT costs under federal assistance programs.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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