In Case of Emergency

New technology, and new threats, have businesses reexamining how they cope with disaster.

By almost any yardstick, Prairie State Bank is not what you’d call a major financial institution. With a handful of branches scattered in south-central Kansas, the bank maintains a small retail business in the GWMA (Greater Wichita Metropolitan Area). How small is small? On its corporate Website, the company’s management proudly proclaims that Prairie State “is the 24th largest bank in the state of Kansas.”

Still, the concerns of the top executives at tiny Prairie State are probably not unlike those of high-powered bankers who run global banking giants. High on that list: how to keep computer systems up and running in case of an emergency. While it’s not especially likely that terrorists will strike Augusta, Kansas (site of the bank’s home office), the Sunflower State does get its fair share of tornadoes. And in 1999, an overflowing Whitewater River swelled clear up to the steps of the main office. “We had to sandbag the front doors,” recalls Chip DuFriend, network administrator at the bank.

Until recently, Prairie State backed up its 16 servers to individual, onsite tape drives. But last year, the bank’s Microsoft Exchange server went down and DuFriend was unable to restore the system with a tape backup. Unsettled by the experience, management at Prairie State decided to try something different, eventually signing up for a subscription service provided by StorServer Inc., in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The service enables the bank to store the data from its servers on one server at an offsite location. DuFriend says he can go online and easily recover lost or deleted data files — a revelation for managers used to working straight from tape backups. Says DuFriend: “This system is a paradigm shift for us.”

Paradigm shift aptly describes what’s going on in the world of disaster recovery these days. Spurred on initially by Y2K and, more recently, 9/11 and the great blackout of 2003, corporate executives are focusing on data protection like never before. According to Stamford, Connecticut-based research firm Meta Group Inc., companies spent just 3.2 percent of their IT budgets on security (employee education, business continuity, and disaster recovery) in 2001. Last year, the outlay was more like 8.2 percent — a dramatic increase.

This newfound interest in security goes beyond increased spending. Advances in technology — and a wider array of threats — have corporate executives rethinking their whole approach to disaster recovery. The days of the onsite, raised-floor room, with rows of clunky tape machines and droning cooling units, are fast disappearing. In their place: remote hot-sites, fail-over systems (backup networks that can be brought online instantly), and Web-based file storage and retrieval. Says Gregg Therkalsen, vice president of business continuity at Hopkinton, Massachusetts-based vendor EMC Corp.: “The idea of backing up info on tape, having human beings put that in a truck, and driving it away…. Well, every customer wants that to go away.”

Not Every One Gets Corrupted

Ellen Christy can attest to that. Christy, director of information technology at Boston-based private-equity specialist HarbourVest Partners, says the firm used to back up its data to tape onsite. Then, at the end of each day, an employee would lug the tape home and store it on some high shelf. “But small companies grow,” she notes, “and one tape becomes two, two become three….”

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