Redeeming a network from the ashes

On July 2, 1997 a fire ripped through Bankstown Civic Centre destroying Council Chambers and first floor and leaving computer systems water soaked and smoke damaged.

The destruction forced Alok Dhar, IT manager at Bankstown City Council's Civil Services division, and his team of ten staff to completely rebuild the organisation's IT systems.

In addition, the team faced the challenge of implementing a SAP R/3 project and integrating a variety of new business applications.

As Dhar explained, the arduous task of completely rebuilding an IT infrastructure and network and implementing new systems at the same time literally started from scratch.

"The fire wiped out everything. It wiped out the building, all infrastructure, computers, network -- everything went down. From there we are back now with almost everything we had and much more," Dhar said.

Starting with restoring mission-critical applications from backup tapes which were recovered from the fire, Dhar was able to get some applications up and running one day after the fire. From there, Dhar has spent the last year and a half working with partners, including Anixter, to re-establish the organisation's IT systems and implement new infrastructure, such as client/server architecture.

According to Dhar, a big change to Bankstown Council's operations has been the switch from a single site to a campus-wide site, with five separate buildings to accommodate the separate divisions.

Under the new setup, the council now has a fully operational WAN and LAN with an ATM backbone and radio-based network.

Before the fire, the council ran a "mickey mouse WAN" between its garbage depots.

The new WAN extends to all branch libraries as well as the council's five office buildings, built after the fire, Dhar said.

The corporate LAN, newly designed by solutions integrator Anixter, has also been expanded and upgraded.

"We had a very primitive network before . . . highly unstructured, no documentation, no scalability, no flexibility," Dhar said.

"Now we have designed a network that is fault-tolerant in a sense that if one link breaks down there is another link that will take over. If the radio link breaks down there is an ISDN link that will take over; if ISDN breaks down, then we have dial-up."

According to Dhar, council chose ATM technology for the networks mainly because of bandwidth requirements.

"We looked at Fast Ethernet [100Mbit/sec] but [ATM] gave us 155Mbit/sec straight away, with the capacity to go to 160Mbit/sec in the future.

"We wanted to embrace something that was going to take us into the next millenn-ium."

Dhar said that in addition to installing new networks and core systems, the organisation also upgraded many of its business applications throughout the project. These included implementing SAP R/3, a library information and management system, a property management system, and a document and records management system, he said.

Coping with a disaster, whatever it is, is always a challenge. But when it involves managing staff, dealing with suppliers and working around the clock, it becomes a nightmare.

For Dhar, one of the biggest hurdles over the last year has been dealing with several suppliers at the one time.

"Managing one supplier is difficult; managing six of them is a bit of a challenge," Dhar said.

Not only do you have to ensure individual suppliers deliver equipment and services on time, but suppliers have to work together to deliver the total package, Dhar explained.

"You've got to make sure they're working hand-in-hand, and that's a bit of a challenge."

Looking after a team of ten IT staff was also a challenge Dhar faced.

"When you're dealing with that kind of team size and with so many projects and such a demanding time frame you've got to be extra careful on the people side of things," Dhar said.

"You've got to make sure that you are really in touch with your team members and that you are picking up obvious signs of stress . . . It's a matter of balancing [the work] and making sure you take care of your people, including yourself," he said.

What if it happens again?

According to Dhar, now that council has finished the restoration and upgrade, it is devoting time to preparing for the experience to happen again.

"We are spending quite a lot of energy now in developing a well-tested business continuity plan, as well as developing plans for testing the plan," Dhar said.

One of the challenges in developing a business continuity plan is convincing management that it is necessary.

"I think we are fortunate in a sense: having gone through an experience that a lot of people don't go through, we have this management buy-in -- so we don't have to sell it to management that we need this," Dhar said.

"It almost comes from the top. We have the acceptance from the senior management, so that's a big battle already won."

Dhar is also working on developing a new IT strategy for the organisation, because the previous strategy was incorporated into the disaster-recovery project following the fire. Dhar said the new strategy will concentrate on using the Internet more effectively and developing better management skills.

"Because we now have these pretty sophisticated applications as well as a network, and we won't have a lot of numbers in terms of IT people in-house to support all that. We have to look at finding smarter ways of managing and providing end-user support with the resources that we have," he said.

"What we are looking at is deploying smarter management tools and improving better ways of administering the network and applications."

Dhar said another important area the council is beginning to look at is the issue of structuring and people management.

"We are looking at the whole IT area and how it is structured and how the whole issue of in-house resources are managed in the future. That is: what level of skills are we going to develop or retain in-house; what are we going to go out for; and how are we going to access these skills from the outside market?"

Dhar said the work has shifted from hands-on implementation and disaster recovery to looking more at the business processes behind IT.

"It's now about management, about putting practices and putting disciplines in place," he said.

Surviving a disaster

Work with partners. "We recognised we could not do everything in-house, so whenever we could tap into some external sources we did."

Look at anything from the past that you can use.

Use a disaster recovery plan and business continuity plan.

Chose systems which can be integrated easily.

Look at how to develop and retain staff.

Copyright © 1999 IDG Communications, Inc.

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