Update: IT managers scramble as Rita nears

'Always plan for the worst, have a plan and stick to it,' says the president of Jaguar Technologies

As powerful Hurricane Rita bears down on the Gulf Coast -- with landfall expected somewhere along the northeastern coast of Texas early Saturday -- IT managers scrambled to put disaster recovery plans in place today.

Although its sustained winds late today were reported at 150 miles an hour -- down slightly from yesterday -- Rita is still projected to make landfall as an intense hurricane, the second such storm to threaten the region in a month. Deadly Hurricane Katrina plowed into coastal communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on Aug. 29, leaving hundreds dead (see Hurricane Katrina Special Coverage page).

Among those working to get ready for the storm, which could bring flooding well inland, is Gregory E. Landis, president of Jaguar Technologies LLC, an IT systems hosting facility in Houston. Landis said his disaster recovery plan, which includes topping off emergency diesel generators with fuel and monitoring remote and on-site customer systems, is already in place.

Jaguar has also offered financial assistance to its staffers to help them find temporary living arrangements or make travel plans.

When asked if Katrina had altered his plans for Rita, Landis said, "No. There isn't anything different for us to plan for, be it Rita, Katrina or any other large storm. Always plan for the worst, have a plan and stick to it!"

While Katrina was a tragedy for New Orleans, it had minimal impact on the companies that prepared properly, he said. Landis pointed to another IT firm in New Orleans -- Directnic.com -- which stayed operational throughout Katrina thanks to solid planning.

Lynette Ring, help desk coordinator at Houston-based Hines Interests LP, said her company has had the same disaster recovery plan for the past two years. That plan includes replicating data to Dallas and shutting down operations two days in advance of the storm. Contact lists for key IT employees are also distributed, and the company has created a 1-800 number for employees to call for updated information. Phone systems are rerouted through the Dallas area.

"We're a worldwide company; therefore it's easier and there's a faster connection for people outside of the Texas area to be able to connect with Dallas as opposed to Houston," Ring said.

Farther to the east, companies that were hit hard by Katrina cast a wary eye toward the Gulf of Mexico, as Rita appeared to be moving closer in the direction of Louisiana than forecasters had projected earlier in the week.

After riding out Hurricane Katrina in a friend's basement, Lenny Sawyer, CEO of 104-year-old Sawyer Real Estate Inc. in Gulfport, Miss., said he just brought his firm's servers and PC back online today. The building in which Sawyer Real Estate is located -- just 200 feet from the gulf -- had been flooded by six feet of water during Katrina.

The office was devastated mainly by the storm surge that waterlogged his firm's 14 critical servers. Sawyer had to use the data recovery service from Kroll Ontrack Inc. in Eden Prairie, Minn., to recover hard drives with customer, property and financial information.

Now Sawyer faces being brushed by Rita as it passes along the Gulf Coast.

"If we'd known how bad [Katrina] was going to be, we would have gotten all the computers and servers out of the office," he said.

Sawyer said he's confident that Rita will, at worst, skim the Mississippi coast, bringing only minimum rain and wind. So he's going to ride this storm out.

In the future, he said he will look into replicating data to a storage provider in an area of the country where hurricanes can't threaten it.

Yesterday, David Langston, CIO at Houston-based Allied Home Mortgage Capital Corp., said his company has been busy for several days preparing for the hurricane by arranging temporary executive office space in Dallas as well as moving key employees there to operate the company until Houston's poststorm condition is known.

"The impact of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane is something we're not really familiar with," Langston said. "Even a near miss by a storm of this magnitude will have significant impacts on us."

Allied's contingency plans have long called for making temporary arrangements to relocate its headquarters for up to one or two weeks, he said. But Katrina showed that much longer contingency arrangements should be considered if a disaster is more serious. Most businesses in New Orleans, which was flooded after the storm, remain closed.

That's why Langston is relocating operations to Dallas, which is much farther inland and considered safe from the projected path of the hurricane. "We think we may be without power in our [Houston] corporate offices for as long as two weeks" if the brunt of Rita hits the area, he said. The company has around 150 employees based at its headquarters, including about 16 IT staffers.

One concern for Allied is that while it has a backup data center with CyrusOne Networks LLC, that firm is also in Houston. "That is something that in retrospect we are going to look at later," Langston said, noting that he will have company backup tapes with him in Dallas if they are needed.

"Everyone is a lot more sensitive today than before Katrina. We certainly are paying a lot more attention to it," said CyrusOne President and CEO Dave Ferdman. CyrusOne provides a variety of IT services to about 130 companies in the Houston area, including collocation, disaster recovery, hosting, network management and monitoring services.

Ferdman said all of his IT systems are redundant and that the company replicates its own data to a facility 30 miles away in northern Houston. Asked if he would consider replicating data to an out-of-region facility in the future, Ferdman said, "We feel very confident that the location this is in is significantly remote to where these storms will hit. Because of the amount of data, it's on a metro-Ethernet connection, and we can't really bring metro-Ethernet to other markets."

Ferdman also said his company has brought in four times the normal amount of diesel fuel to keep its backup generators running in preparation for the storm. The company also has its own satellite phones in case local communications networks are disrupted.

Dave Russell, a research analyst at Gartner Inc., said there has been a tremendous boost in the number of companies seeking third-party off-site hosting facilities for their data and their IT and business administration systems.

"We've had a lot of inquiries with regard to long-distance replication of data," Russell said. "I think these storms are raising awareness, particularly from the threat of rolling disasters."

Russell pointed to the recent spat of hurricanes -- including Ophelia and Katrina -- that first struck the coast of Florida and then moved either into the Gulf Coast or up along the East Coast, spreading damage over a wide area. "You're talking over half the coast of this country. People are really looking at disaster recovery from economic perspective and saying, 'Maybe we can justify spending money on extended replication [of data],' " he said.

Shelley Wall, IT operations and network manager for the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County in Houston, said her IT team is in the middle of organizing all off-site backups and distributing them among several personnel to make sure the data will be available in the aftermath of Rita.

"We did a lot of relief work for Katrina, and we found the most important part of our communications is our phone system," said Wall, whose company now issues cell phones and has wireless connectivity for laptops. It also created personnel contact lists and issued e-mail-enabled BlackBerries to most of the staff.

Kevin Roden, CIO at Iron Mountain Inc., a third-party service provider of off-site records storage, said that all but one of 30 facilities in the Houston area are dedicated to paper records storage. The other one stores electronic and magnetic media. Roden said alerts from dozens of companies serviced by Iron Mountain have been pouring in.

"We ended up creating some quick 1-800 numbers for customers to place orders with us," Roden said. "Just like everyone else, we're preparing by battening down the buildings and making sure employees are accounted for and safe."

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, which had been nervously eyeing Rita's path, electricity was restored today in the downtown office building that houses Tulane University's New Orleans data center.

John Lawson, CIO at the university, the city's largest private employer, has been working with some of his IT staff since Katrina pounded the city and had managed to restart a number of systems. The center, located on the 14th floor of the high-rise building, wasn't damaged by Katrina but has been closed since the storm struck.

"We feel great" about the restoration of power, said Lawson after getting some of his systems restarted. "It's very encouraging."

Still, he has been monitoring Rita in case it veers from its projected path. "We will shut down if necessary," Lawson said.

Using its backup tapes, the university moved its core financial and student systems to an outsourcing center operated by SunGard Data Systems Inc. in Voorhees, N.J. Lawson said he has no immediate plans to return those operations to New Orleans. "At this point, it's just bring up what we can and wait and see how the city recovers."

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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