Recovering data in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast

Dozens of companies get to work on disaster recovery, setting up remote offices and data centers.

Alorie Gilbert
Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
3 min read
Hewlett-Packard, IBM, SunGard Data Systems and others are working with dozens of Gulf Coast businesses to keep their computer systems running in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but the service companies say many were unprepared for the disaster.

IBM, which has about 100 disaster recovery clients in the hurricane-ravaged region, said that dozens of affected companies have already switched on backup networks and data centers in Big Blue facilities as far away as Boulder, Colo. About 25 SunGard clients have invoked their disaster recovery plans, setting up remote offices and computer systems in SunGard facilities across the country.

HP's disaster recovery clients are working mainly out of the company's Alpharetta, Ga., offices. A few clients have also requested mobile trailers complete with servers, satellite communications, generators and office equipment, said Belinda Wilson, director of HP business continuity services.

"There are so many companies coming out of the woodwork that need help."
--Belinda Wilson, director, HP business continuity services

The computer services companies declined to name their clients, citing confidentiality agreements, but said they include banks, insurance companies, health care organizations, oil and chemical companies, manufacturers and government agencies.

Yet for all the companies with elaborate disaster plans, many more don't have any, Wilson said. One company, which she described as a large manufacturer, is now scrambling after letting a disaster recovery proposal HP delivered in July collect dust. "There are so many companies coming out of the woodwork that need help," she said.

National catastrophes, starting with the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, have spurred more disaster recovery, or business continuity, planning, analysts said. Disaster recovery services available from companies like IBM and SunGard run the gamut, including consulting and remote data backup, programs for recovering data, and mobile offices that can roll up to a customer's site. They're all aimed at helping companies keep their data and applications running in the event of disasters such as blackouts, floods and computer attacks.

Last year's hurricanes in Florida and the blackouts that hit the Northeast in 2003 have further fueled interest in such services, according to Gartner analyst Roberta Witty. Gartner saw a 32 percent rise in disaster recovery spending last year after a slight decline in 2003.

"The awareness is rising in most companies, and they are addressing it in some way," Witty said. "It may not be an optimal plan and it may not cover all the components, but they're looking at it."

Yet a surprising number of companies continue to overlook the issue, according to a recent survey commissioned by AT&T. About one-third of 1,200 respondents said they have no business continuity plan. Nearly a quarter of companies surveyed said they've not updated their plans in the past 12 months, and nearly as many have not tested them during that time either. Seventeen percent said they've never tested their disaster recovery plans.

"It's not the priority you would think it would be," an AT&T representative said.

Yet even the companies with data center backup plans find it difficult to focus on business while grappling with the human toll the still-unfolding tragedy in the Gulf Coast is taking. Some SunGard clients have been unable to round up employees to staff remote operations and load data. In some cases, SunGard is performing that work for them, said Bob DiLossi, manager of SunGard's Availability Services' crisis management center.

"People are very stressed," DiLossi said. "They don't even know if they have homes and don't know what to expect."