Blackout experience yields divergent backup strategies

FRAMINGHAM (09/19/2003) - Human nature being what it is, IT managers' responses to the alarm bells set off by last month's massive blackout have a lot to do with whether or not they were affected by it.

According to a survey of 500 IT managers released last week by data center user group AFCOM, IT managers in the blackout area are tending to focus on fixing their own problems, such as improving backup power. Unaffected companies, however, are showing more interest in turning to vendors for help.

For some IT managers, the difference affirms a basic truth about human behavior: There is no substitute for experience.

"What you're seeing there is a little bit of pain," said Don Tissell, server facilities manager at Frito-Lay Inc. in Plano, Texas, referring to the actions of data center managers affected by the blackout. "Living it and reading about it are two different things," he added.

Learning From Experience

Of those affected, according to the nationwide survey by Orange, Calif.-based AFCOM, 19 percent said they have plans to test backup power devices, compared with 8 percent of those who were unaffected; 18 percent of those who lost power in the blackout will be conducting additional training, as opposed to 8 percent of those unaffected by the blackout. And 17 percent of the affected data center executives plan to test existing disaster recovery plans, while just 9 percent of those who were unaffected will be doing so.

IT managers said the Aug. 14 blackout exposed problems such as inadequate training that might not be obvious to a company that wasn't affected, which is why affected companies have placed a greater emphasis on internal issues.

"Whoever went through the power outage is definitely rethinking what they have," said Juan Sierra, computer operations manager at Visiting Nurse Service of New York. He's working to improve his organization's backup power and training.

Being more externally focused, unaffected companies are more likely than affected companies to arrange for off-site backup services, according to the survey. Among unaffected companies, 24 percent plan to use a "hot" site with near-real-time data backups or a "warm" site with periodic backups. But just 4 percent of affected companies plan to use those services.

The survey also sought to determine the costs resulting from the outage. Two percent of those surveyed said they suffered more than US$10 million in productivity losses; 1 percent reported losses of between $1 million and $5 million. And 10 percent reported losses of $100,000 to $500,000.

More than half of those affected by the blackout, however, said that associated costs were less than $10,000 -- a figure that was met with some skepticism at an AFCOM conference in Dallas last week. Among those who expressed doubt was Dennis Reid, operations manager and the person in charge of contingency planning at Time Customer Service Inc., the order-fulfillment center for publisher Time Inc.

Reid said those companies that reported little financial impact either had recoverable services or aren't really sure what the outage cost them. He said he suspects that the latter is true for many businesses.

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