Back-up systems perform in Christchurch quake

DR and cloud computing helped ChCh firms get back on their feet

Business continuity systems were put to the test during and after the earthquake in Christchurch. The benefits of cloud computing also came to the fore, as smaller companies were saved by not having their systems onsite.

Smaller companies have praised cloud computing, because their hosted systems weren’t impacted by the earthquake.

Enfinit Software, which develops online time sheet management tool TimeFiler, was barely affected at all, says CEO Ian Johnson. TimeFiler is hosted with another Christchurch company, Computer Concepts, which takes care of disaster recovery as well.

“Their service did what it’s supposed to do when there is a disaster,” says Johnson. “Backup power kicked in and TimeFiler didn’t go down at all. Our overseas customers wouldn’t even know an earthquake had happened,” he says.

The way TimeFiler made it through the earthquake is “a real advert for software-as-a-service”, he says.

Johnson and his five staff weren’t able to access their office building until the Friday after the shocks, but as the whole business is operating on the web, business continued as usual. The team were able to work on mobile devices from home until the office was declared safe.

“We are back to normal now as the aftershocks are winding down,” says Johnson. “But that first week was pretty strange.”

It was earlier this year that the company decided to host all its systems off-site and Johnson is thankful for that now.

Website analysis and search engine specialists LeftClick also has its systems hosted in the cloud. The company could continue running with staff accessing the information they needed from home. “We use Google Apps and cloud-based storage,” says managing director Alan Cox. “All of our systems and information are safe, backed up and we can work with it as well, accessing files remotely.”

Straight after the earthquake, Cox contacted staff via text and Twitter to make sure everybody was all right. Twitter turned out to be a very helpful channel for keeping in touch and staying connected to the rest of the world, he says.

“To be completely honest, business continuity was the last thing on my mind. When it happened, the main thing was finding out if everyone was OK, not only my staff but everybody,” says Cox.

LeftClick is now trying to get business running, but the next two to three months are looking uncertain in terms of projects going ahead.

For example, a project for the council has been delayed, which has an immediate impact on cash flow, says Cox. Sales and prospecting have slowed down too, as most of the company’s clients are in Christchurch.

However, Cox is positive about the future.

“The last time we were in a similar situation was in the middle of the recession and LeftClick actually nearly doubled in size then, because we could offer something that most other web agencies couldn’t,” he says. “So, while there may be a two to three month period of pain, we expect there will be a lot of positives coming out of it too.”

The tiredness and anxiety is obviously going to affect people for a while, he says. When Computerworld talked to Cox, aftershocks were still keeping people on edge.

“We got a big aftershock last night, which was 4.6 [on the Richter scale]. We had gone 24 hours since the last one so you kind of think it might all be over, and then another big one comes through. It disturbs sleep patterns and doesn’t really help increase productivity at a time when you need to be productive.”

The company has got together as a team and made decisions collectively, he says.

“We are working as hard as we can to overcome any potential downfall.”

Unisys has a formal business continuity plan that was put to the test in the days following the earthquake. This was the first time the plan was initiated locally, says managing director Brett Hodgson.

The plan is based on three principles, he says. “Firstly, are our people safe? We need to know that before the next step is triggered.”

Processes are in place so staff can respond quickly in the event of a disaster. Unisys’ work culture supports working from home, so staff are set up with laptops and mobile phones and are able to access the tools and information they need to be productive, and to stay in touch, says Hodgson. The mobile workforce is specifically designed with an event like this one in mind, he says.

Secondly, assets are checked; is the building safe? Unisys’ offices in Christchurch were not damaged, but as the CBD was cordoned off, staff couldn’t access it until Monday September 13. Thanks to the mobile workforce approach this didn’t affect the company, says Hodgson. All of Unisys’ datacentres could be monitored remotely via laptops or even iPhones, so none of that work stopped.

“Anything could be accessed remotely,” he says. “Over the years, we have worked to make sure we are not tied to a facility in terms of our response.”

Clients come third. “It sounds terrible to put clients third but you really can’t assist if you don’t know your staff and assets are ok,” he says.

Calling a BCP (business continuity planning) event is a formal act of senior management, says Hodgson. Unisys’ Asia Pacific risk manager then becomes the driver of executing the plan, with meetings every day until the state of emergency is over. Unisys teams were active from the day of the earthquake, working through the reality of the situation, prioritising response actions and planning for likely scenarios, he says.

The first step was to get a snapshot of the impact on its clients and then communicate to all local customers, regardless of location, that Unisys had triggered a BCP event for New Zealand and that the company may have to prioritise Christchurch customers ahead of them. The feedback from customers was “exceptionally good”, with companies all over the country showing their support, says Hodgson.

As it turned out, Unisys was able to deal with customer issues in Christchurch quickly and no other customers were affected, but it had to be part of the prioritising process.

Among the customers that needed help were Lumley Insurance, AMI, Inland Revenue, Department of Housing, Hertz and Dell.

Contact with customers was made mainly via cellphone, says Hodgson. Once areas of concern had been identified, Unisys flew people in to Christchurch to assist customers.

With Dell, Unisys was concerned that a big number of home users would ring up because their computer had fallen off the desk during the earthquake, says Hodgson. Unisys worked with Dell’s Malaysian call centre to be prepared for peaks of calls. Unisys got updates every hour and was ready to send more people to New Zealand to deal with any spikes in warranty calls if needed.

Unisys also contacted its business partners, such as EMC, whom were ready to coordinate efforts as needed, he says.

“It wasn’t about who was paying who,” he says. “It was more like: ‘Let’s get this fixed’.”

Hodgson is pleased with how well the BCP worked. “It just worked,” he says. “Because we could activate the plan so quickly, the impact of the earthquake on us was minimum.”

Jade Software is another company that didn’t go down at all during the earthquake. All systems switched over to diesel generators when power cut out and main power came back again after an hour.

“We never missed a beat,” says Jade’s chief innovation officer, John Ascroft.

Jade kept its two buildings closed on the Monday after the quake to let engineers check them for safety. The main building reopened on the Tuesday and all staff were back on the Wednesday following the earthquake. Staff were able to work from home the days the office was closed. Part of the company’s BCP is that all staff have broadband internet.

“It was nice to see it worked so well,” says Ascroft.

He says many companies have BCP processes in place, but wonder if they’ll ever need them. “Well, now it happened and the BCP worked like a Swiss watch,” he says.

The last weeks have been quite upsetting, especially for staff with young families, says Ascroft.

“Some have sent their children to stay with grandparents away from the region. People have also had trouble sleeping because there have been a number of aftershocks at night. But it is gradually coming back to normal now.”

Jade offered counselling sessions at work that staff could go to if they wanted to. The sessions aimed to help people cope with life after the earthquake.

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Tags cloud computingdisaster recoveryunisyschristchurch earthquakeJade SoftwareSpecial IDLeftclicktimefiler

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