A data path to recovery

Mobile units can help speed response during catastrophes

Tens of thousands of displaced New Orleans residents sought help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but few government officials could respond. The city's IT infrastructure was incapacitated.

Seared into the national consciousness are images of people packed into the Louisiana Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center while awaiting food, water, medical treatment and other help. Their plight taught hard lessons.

To cope with an emergency, key government organizations, such as police, first responders and human services agencies, must be better able to communicate with each other, and they must have quick access to critical data. To meet these needs, many states are considering mobile disaster recovery equipment and solutions.

"Because of the hurricane season last year, everyone's eyes got opened wide," said Bob Boyd, president and CEO of Agility Recovery Solutions Inc., a Charlotte, N.C., company that offers mobile recovery services as well as equipment shipping capabilities. "This stuff, if it happens, is really big and it's really bad."

Louisiana CIO Rizwan Ahmed agreed. "If they have not looked at it before, I'm sure they will look at it now," he said. Nowhere is this more true than the hurricane-threatened South, he said.

Help rolls in

Mobile recovery means data on wheels. Several companies offer mobile recovery units that can drive into a disaster area within hours.

The units feature thousands of square feet of climate-controlled space that can house equipment and provide capabilities needed by government employees responding to disasters, including servers and laptops, voice and data communications, and terminals and printers.

Being able to get key operations up and running quickly is essential. A state agency responding to a disaster might need to buy new equipment and require access to its list of vendors to make the purchase. A health care agency may try to help patients, but without data would not know what condition any given person has. A police department might be trying to compile a list of missing persons. Each requires access to data.

That data often can be unavailable during and after an emergency. Even if a data center or its backup is not affected, the lines of communications connecting the data center to those who need the data often are broken.

Data is most needed after the emergency has passed, said Julius Neudorfer, director of Network Services Inc., a data center and networking company.

"It's absolutely critical for when the fires are out and people are standing in the streets, and you have no place for them to file claims, ask for medical assistance or be directed, as was sadly seen in Katrina," he said.

The model for data recovery in a disaster has been to pay for use of a private data center. Many large IT and telecommunications companies have such operations, and many private sector businesses use them.

Among the leaders in the field are CAPS Business Recovery Solutions, Leonia, N.J.; Hewlett-Packard Co.; IBM Corp.; and SunGard Data Systems Inc., Wayne, Pa., said Stephanie Balaouras, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, Mass.

Other players include telecommunications companies such as AT&T Inc. and Qwest Communications International Inc. of Denver, she said.

At what cost?

State agencies looking to recover just 35 seats are paying $11,500 per month, plus fees ranging up to $10,000 to declare a disaster, plus additional usage fees after 30 days, all for the right to use a backup data center within 48 hours of an emergency. Those prices may be within range for major corporations, but not for state and local government agencies, Ahmed said.

The business model of mobile disaster recovery solution providers offers cheaper service, said Ahmed, who is working on a deal with several mobile disaster recovery companies for services to state agencies under one contract, he said.

By charging a small, monthly membership fee, plus billing for all costs associated with rolling out the solution when it is needed, companies such as Agility offer levels of service.
Rentsys Recovery Services Inc., College Station, Texas, and SunGard also are considered major players in the field, Forrester's Balaouras said.

Network Services, a division of North American Access Technologies Inc., Hawthorne, N.Y., uses a different model. Instead of supplying equipment and services, the company builds and sells mobile data centers to businesses and government agencies.

Network Services' mobile data centers cost between $200,000 and $1 million, Neudorfer said. The vehicle is different from a command bus, which offers workstations and voice communications connectivity.

The truck, which has room only for a driver and one or two others, is stocked with servers and operational LANs and WANs to support a makeshift office, Neudorfer said.

He would not say how many mobile data centers Network Services has sold or to whom, but said the company is targeting government agencies and has seen an increase in interest and demand. But government buying cycles likely will push most purchases into 2007, he said.

Agility offers three levels of service, with monthly fees ranging from $250 per month for up to 48 deliverable work stations, to $2,500 per month for access to 200 seats, Agility's Boyd said.

Within 48 hours of calling the company, mobile office trailers arrive, complete with computers, satellites, servers, printers and fax machines, he said. The full expense of rounding up and delivering the equipment is passed along to the customer.

During Katrina, Agility mobilized for nearly 40 commercial clients and billed an average of $50,000 for use of the trailers over several months, Boyd said.

One Agility customer is the auditor's office for Hamilton County, Ohio, which is paying $750 a month to reserve up to 96 seats on two trailers, Boyd said. The county is using it to protect financial, payroll and real estate data that generate a significant portion of its income, said Terry Munz, IT director for the Hamilton County Auditor's Office.

Although the threat of a major storm makes for lots of attention, power outages, fires and floods are the most common emergencies that affect a government agency's operations, Boyd said.

Agility is just beginning to sell to government agencies. The business community already has embraced the need for disaster recovery, and state and local governments are following, Boyd said.

"It's clearly an area that we expect to have a lot of growth in," he said. "If you're the city manager or county administrator in a local community, you know you've got to recover and be there for your taxpayers."

Staff Writer Ethan Butterfield can be reached at ebutterfield@postnewsweektech.com.

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