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Assessing The Impact (Part One)

Privacy rights get looked at much more closely in the wake of terrorism

No words can adequately describe the tragedy of Tuesday, Sept. 11. But there can be action. And there certainly will be change. It was a gut-wrenching mix of personal concern and professional obligation under the worst of circumstances. As IT managers struggled to come to grips with the attacks in New York and Washington, many also worked overtime to ensure that their companies' systems and those of their clients and partners continued to run. The work is far from over, but already it's clear there will be far-reaching implications in the way IT is used and managed. The privacy debate may be forever altered: According to a survey of 2,000 business-technology professionals conducted by InformationWeek Research last week, 71% would be willing to trade more of their privacy for greater protection from terrorist threats. And security is more critical than ever. As the nation rebuilds, we welcome your thoughts, comments, and concerns at our Listening Post.

When the first hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, Ron Breuche, an EMC Corp. professional-services technician, was walking to a customer's data center on Broad Street in lower Manhattan. He was pelted with debris and suffered minor injuries as he made his way to the work site, where he helped care for injured people as they sought shelter.

The data center, owned by wireless service provider Go America Inc., was operating on power from a diesel generator and had no air conditioning. Because he was one of the few people who reached the data center before the World Trade Center towers collapsed, Breuche remained at the site for nearly 36 hours--alone during the night after other workers left--to monitor the EMC equipment and keeping it from overheating.

In the chaotic days that followed last Tuesday's terrorist attacks, many hard-hit businesses struggled to regain their footing while other companies worked to help mitigate the impact of the tragedy. A report from AMR Research issued after the disaster pointed out that U.S. financial institutions--which comprised many of the companies affected by the events--have IT systems with redundant hardware, software, and data, as well as extensive disaster-recovery systems. Despite that, the recovery was still chaotic.

Owens & Minor Inc., which distributes medical supplies, tried to help customers in need. CEO Gil Minor, who was attending InformationWeek's Collaborative Business Conference in Tucson, Ariz., when the attacks took place, set up an ad hoc operations center at the event from which to manage things. The Glen Allen, Va., company dusted off its Y2K contingency plan and sent equipment and supplies to places that needed them--before the supplies were ordered. As the disaster unfolded, the company automatically shipped supplies to New York-area hospitals using customer-profile information in its IT systems. It also shipped supplies to an emergency staging area at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N.J.

Late last week, many companies were still assessing the business impact of the disaster. Half of the respondents to InformationWeek Research's online survey didn't yet know whether they had suffered financial losses because of the attacks; 5% estimated their losses were greater than $500,000.

Despite the devastation, companies with disaster-recovery plans were able to restore IT and customer-service operations at remote sites. Within hours of the attacks, Comdisco Inc. was providing disaster-recovery services from its facilities in Queens, N.Y., and New Jersey for 38 companies, including eight based in the World Trade Center. "Essentially, we put them back in business, from an IT point of view," says John Jackson, president of Comdisco's availability solutions division. He declined to identify the companies involved, except to say that nearly all were financial-services businesses--banks, brokerages, insurance companies, and one New York-based trading exchange. Comdisco also provided temporary off-site services for a few companies whose buildings in Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities were evacuated Tuesday.

Comdisco's services ranged from operating duplicate data centers to providing backup call-center facilities. Seven companies that had dedicated IT facilities on standby at Comdisco sites, complete with data backed up from primary facilities, were able to resume operations almost immediately, Jackson says. Most of the others, which had to transfer staff and data to Comdisco sites, were up and running by noon on Sept. 12.

The off-site data centers include several mainframes running enterprise applications, although few companies had mainframe-based data centers running in the World Trade Center area. Most of the duplicated systems are servers running office software such as E-mail. About 3,000 employees from displaced companies, and workers brought in to replace those killed or missing, are using Comdisco's call-center facilities.

Still, Jackson says Comdisco's services go only so far. "I don't think there's any way these companies anticipated a loss of life and paper-based records on such a scale," he says.

Other IT vendors are working around the clock to help their customers recover as quickly as possible. EMC set up a 24-hour command center in a cramped conference room at its software-support facility in Hopkinton, Mass. Managers there are overseeing efforts to help customers in lower Manhattan test systems that might have been damaged in the disaster or replace systems that were destroyed.

In the command center last week, several EMC employees gathered around a conference table listening to fellow workers at customer sites in New York--their voices strained and fatigued--discuss the obstacles they face, such as the lack of electricity in the financial district. A huge whiteboard listed a dozen customers, the data-storage equipment they'd ordered, and other pertinent information. News updates were running on one of several PCs, and nearby, a wall map of lower Manhattan was dotted with red flags in and around the area of the World Trade Center marking customer sites.

Brian Young, CEO of Thor Technologies Inc., which makes digital-rights-management software and had offices just three floors below where a highjacked American Airlines jetliner hit the first World Trade Center tower, spent all day Tuesday trying to account for the company's 45 employees. Young, who was in Tucson at the InformationWeek conference, relied heavily on instant messaging to communicate with his staff. Within 36 hours, all were accounted for, and Young and his co-workers were showing the kind of resilience that is characteristic of technology suppliers and IT professionals across the country. "The whole team," he says, "is involved in how we're going to open up again."

Read, "Assessing The Impact (Part Two)"

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