Blackout - Technology saves the day as business moves out

Cellphones and notebooks were order of the day last week as Auckland's downtown business struggled to put aside its anger and frustration at the power cuts and get on with the job of maintaining operations. Small retailers faced the prospect of a ruinous closedown, while office workers took their PCs home or - in the case of Computerworld - set up in their garages.

Cellphones and notebooks were order of the day last week as Auckland’s downtown business struggled to put aside its anger and frustration at the power cuts and get on with the job of maintaining operations.

Small retailers faced the prospect of a ruinous closedown, while office workers took their PCs home or — in the case of Computerworld — set up in their garages. Downtown Auckland was not unlike a war zone, with the sound of generators dominating and office staff moving essential equipment off premises. Internet connections and email became a lifeline of communication for newly realised teleworkers on a steep learning curve.

Doomsayers were quick to point out that this was a good introduction to the sort of crisis we could face in year 2000. As one local newsgroup poster pointed out last week, the doomsayers contend that such crises could happen all over the world as a result of the millennium bug.

All power supply authorities use computers to control generation and distribution of electricity -— and it could take only a handful of machines to fail to create a domino effect. In the northern hemisphere, where companies will be coping with mid-winter energy demands as year 2000 debuts, computer failures could cause huge blackouts across Europe.

While the politicians looked for someone to blame for Auckland’s power crisis, the city’s Internet companies spent the first few days of the blackout shoring up their own services and helping out stricken customers.

Among the most active was KC Internet Services, which specialises in corporate leased-line business. During the first weekend of the crisis, KC created emergency dial-up accounts for customers, and took in their servers for telehousing in several locations in West Auckland, far from the blackout areas.

“It’s all good fun,” chirped KC managing director David Dix, who worked late into the night setting up new connections — some complete with firewalls — for his customers.

It took a country customer to restore service at two of the country’s leading ISPs, ClearNet and Netlink, however. ClearNet has emergency generators at its own site at Clear Communications, but depends on switching gear housed at the nearby University of Auckland, which had little backup generating capacity. Extra generators have been almost impossible to procure in Auckland.

Netlink — which services many government departments and corporates, and the development and hosting firm Clearview — also depended on the university site, but was able to save the day when one of its customers, Johnny Irons of the well-known “virtual ISP” Binary Brothers, based in the remote Coromandel area, drove his own generator into the city on Saturday night.

Netlink’s Gary Connolly says he and other staff staff hooked up the generator and restored service to both companies early on Sunday morning, “all by torchlight”. A subsequent outage was caused by a failure in a Netway frame-relay circuit.

Xtra moved about 40 core staff into Telecom’s Mayoral Drive exchange, which has enough generating capacity to run a medium-sized town, and sent the rest to other Telecom buildings or to work at home. Or at others’ homes — Xtra marketing manager Ian Scherger reported that his Grey Lynn lounge had become an instant office.

One ISP, Auckland Internet Exchange, was running basic services on generator power yesterday. Several other ISPs — including Iconz, Ihug and Internet Prolink — sit on the edge of the blackout zone and were making plans should their supply fail.

“We invested in a lot of generator capacity a couple of years ago,” says Ihug director Nick Wood. “We decided back then we didn’t want to be taken off air by power cuts.”

Wood says none of his customers have asked to temporarily house servers at Ihug’s Newton Rd building, “though they’re welcome to — we’ve got a whole spare floor of space here”.

Iconz was nestling in a rare pocket of supply in Eden Crescent in downtown Auckland, but a spokesman says plans are being made in case of a loss of power. These include running some services from the homes of support staff who have ISDN connections, and shifting other services to the company’s Wellington point of presence.

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