Recovery firms spring to action during storm

As Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast, large organizations look to a backup means for sending messages and storing e-mail.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read
Hurricane Katrina may have knocked out power to the offices of New Orleans' largest law firm before dawn on Monday, but its employees weren't about to remain completely in the dark.

That firm, Adams & Reese, and about 30 other organizations, including an ABC television affiliate in Lafayette, La., have activated a tool known as the Emergency Mail System, developed by Austin, Texas-based MessageOne, since the storm descended on South Florida last Thursday.

EMS bills itself as a business continuity system which, within 60 seconds of activation, creates standby Web-based e-mail accounts for all requested users. After the outage is resolved, the system merges all sent and received EMS messages with the users' original mail program. Organizations can activate the Linux-based system over the phone or via the Web.

Hurricane Katrina

During the latest storm, the systems have gone into operation "without problems," said Mike Rosenfelt, MessageOne's executive vice president. "One of the things we preach with our clients is, 'Test them and test them regularly,'" Rosenfelt said.

Granted, such functionality requires a power source and Internet connectivity, though the advent of BlackBerries and other PDAs (personal digital assistants) has provided some relief. "During the 2003 August Northeast power outage," Rosenfelt said, "we actually had users rigging car batteries to convert and use the charge to power their notebooks."

When four hurricanes pummeled Florida in quick succession last year, 23 organizations, including the Florida Department of Education, sent more than 1.2 million messages using the MessageOne system. After the storms, all of the clients reported success in restoring their original e-mail and integrating the EMS messages.

MessageOne belongs to a class of companies, including Electric Mail, Message Labs and AppRiver, that offer various breeds of e-mail security, filtering and backup services. Big players like Hewlett-Packard also count ample market share. HP's continuity and availability systems power 88 percent of the world's stock exchanges, 80 percent of worldwide banking transactions and 66 percent of all point-of-sale transactions, according to a company representative.

Companies can establish their own backup systems internally by setting up servers that replicate mail messages at off-site data centers, but such solutions can be costly, said Michael Osterman, an analyst whose firm focuses on business continuity research. Without any backup in place, e-mails sent to servers victimized by power outages would bounce back to their senders.

"These systems are particularly advantageous for geographically distributed companies," Osterman said. And in the case of the recent disaster, "you can still have complete access to your mail even if the servers are located in downtown New Orleans."

Even so, a "fairly significant percentage" of companies don't have a disaster recovery plan in place, let alone one that makes use of e-mail recovery systems, he said. According to a survey by Osterman's research firm, many companies said it would take eight hours or more to get their e-mail systems up and running after a disaster.

"There's usually a flurry of activity after a disaster like this because it starts waking people up," he said.

Take, for example, the case of a large Miami architectural engineering firm. The company experienced few glitches during last year's four hurricanes, so "everyone got a little complacent," said Rene Cruz, the information technology director for Bermello Ajamil & Partners.

But Katrina brought nearly four days of lost power, drawing alarm from executives at the growing company. Cruz said the company planned to install the MessageOne system but would ideally set up a secondary site for servers in the future.

"We have all of our services and servers in-house," Cruz said. "In situations like this where you're faced with your facilities not being able to support your equipment, you're kind of left in the dark."