The Importance of Disaster Recovery Planning Hits Home

By Eva Marer

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In a small waiting room in mid-town Manhattan, they perch on metal folding chairs, their legs jingling with anxiety. These people are not waiting for news of missing relatives, but for some shred of hope that their businesses are not dead. They are walk-ins to New York City's emergency Business Resource Center (BRC), established by Governor George Pataki two days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The majority of them are small business owners and the news for them is grim.

They are seeking financial help, access to their gutted buildings, restored services, relocation in temporary office space and technical assistance, from network connectivity to computers. But behind the masks of anxiety, a horrible reality is slowly beginning to dawn: even if they get all the help in the world, their businesses may be doomed. "Ninety percent of them had no back-up whatsoever," says Chet Guzel, a network engineer and consultant with offices on Wall Street just blocks from Ground Zero. Sadly, these companies are now becoming object lessons about the importance of disaster recovery planning, even for small businesses.

So far, over 500 business owners have walked through these doors, and the BRC hotline has handled another 5,000 calls. More than 90% of those utilizing the BRC and the hotline are small business owners, says Glynis Gotwald, a spokeswoman for the Empire State Development Corp., which is spearheading the BRC effort. While more than 14,000 businesses were directly affected by the attack, many of the larger companies have multiple locations, redundant servers and extensive back-up files. Despite losing some 40 employees and access to its numerous offices spread throughout the South tower -a toll that would have devastated a smaller company- Morgan Stanley is back in business.

The same cannot be said of small companies from law firms and consultants to corner delis and non-profit theaters. "We even had shoemaker in here whose entire business came from World Trade Center employees," says Gotwald.

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Not all small businesses in the area were destroyed of course. "We were shut out of our office for several days, but we had a full recovery plan in place and were able to work from remote locations," says Guzel, one of the engineers who helped create the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management. "It's incredibly sad that we lost all our work [when the Office was destroyed in the attack] but we have not been affected in a disastrous way," nor have his existing clients. Tech companies like Guzel's have rushed in to offer free services to their neighbors-but often find themselves powerless to help.

"These are people who may have worked to the limit for the past ten or 15 years, and today they're lucky if they can remember a few clients' phone numbers," Guzel says. He has offered to help companies recover data, only to find that every last scrap of information was stored on a desktop computer, or on backup tapes that never left the office. "They have no clue who to collect money from because their accounts receivable are gone. You or I could walk in and say we're owed money and they'd have no way of confirming it because accounts payable is gone too." Guzel is frustrated nearly to the point of tears by the faces of anguish he sees. Moved to help despite the obstacles, Guzel has gotten a few networks up and running with data recreated from hard copies.

Other tech companies, such as Expanets, a network solutions provider that was formerly the small-business arm of Lucent, have offered space in their own offices for existing clients who were dislocated by the blast. Yet connectivity has hampered efforts to get businesses back online. "Verizon has the last mile on everything in the city and dial tone is a huge issue," says Kyle Lane, an Expanets account executive. Verizon has halted all new orders for T1 lines, he says, so the company is furnishing its clients with dial-up connections and access to virtual private networks for the time being. In addition to assisting its own clients, Expanets signed up with the BRC to offer technical assistance, and has been fielding phone calls from hassled business owners all over the city. "A lot of these small businesses don't even have an IT person," he says. "We're just answering a lot of basic questions like 'Is it my phone line? Is it my T1? Is it my data network?' If they're selling or making anything, they can't do it without connectivity."

Some tech companies are lobbying their vendors to provide free equipment. Scott Gilbert, president of Unetra Systems, has offered free loaners to any business running Sun-based Solaris applications. By the Friday after the attack, he had already contracted with two real estate companies to provide a turnkey solution for companies needing to relocate. Gilbert's approach seems to be part altruism, part quick business sense as he rushed to take advantage of a need and an opportunity. "We've discounted our labor rates and are offering free consulting to affected business," he says. He has also attempted every day to volunteer at the disaster site, but has been turned away. Gilbert's mood seems to mirror that of many executives who narrowly escaped harm: the drive to help is matched only by their resolve to keep their own businesses afloat.

Gilbert added that CIOs, no matter where they are in the country, can volunteer to offer advice, support or consulting services via phone to affected businesses by registering at the BRC hotline: 1-800-I LOVE NY. Those staffing the phones log in volunteers who may be called on in the months ahead.

If anything positive for business is to come of this terrible tragedy, it will be that companies of all sizes recognize the importance of creating a business resumption strategy, from redundancy and fault tolerance to back-up management and insurance. "No one in New York thought this would happen to them," Guzel says mournfully. "It's challenging to get someone to understand the importance of disaster recovery planning, yet out of a hundred businesses, probably 96 need it. In the past, we tried to motivate people by providing examples of disasters in other cities around the world. Now we don't have to go outside our own city to drive the point home."

Eva Marer is a freelance business and technology reporter based in New York. She covers investments, personal finance and corporate technology issues for a variety of trade and consumer magazines. Contact her at egresspress@aol.com.