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As Hurricane Rita made its slow, painful progression toward Texas and Louisiana, resellers, disaster-recovery service providers and technology vendors made all-out efforts to help businesses protect their data.

On Thursday, NovaStor Corp. began offering free off-site storage to any small business or systems integrators working with small firms in the projected path of the major storm.

Companies can store their data for up to 30 days, at no charge, at NovaStor’s Southern California data center, according to the Simi Valley, Calif.-based data backup solutions developer. Each firm’s data will be protected and stored separately in an encrypted format.

“We actually thought about it with Katrina, but it was too late,” said Mike Andrews, vice president of sales and marketing at NovaStor. “This is immediate, all depending on the type of connection they have. They just need to click on our Web link.”

SunGard contacted more than 225 customers in Rita’s path, said David Palermo, vice president of marketing at Wayne, Pa.-based SunGard. “As of 9/22, some of these customers have elected to put SunGard on alert for a potential disaster declaration, and some have already declared a disaster—most likely due to evacuating,” he said.

Solution providers in areas expected to be affected have spent hours helping clients safeguard their information.

“I am telling everyone to back up data,” said Sonny Bajat, president of Data/Add, Carencro, La. “I make them back up their data to off-site, either via floppy or USB drives and, if worse comes to worst, they can plug it into my system and get up-and-running. I have a mirrored drive; my system is never down.”

As Data/Add’s clients replace systems, the company insists they purchase a RAID server, complete with dual, mirrored hard drives. “If you have to leave in a hurry, just open the box and take the hard drive with you,” Bajat said. “You just put it in another computer and run.”

Many Companies Still Unprepared

Not Ready for Anything

Despite a barrage of news reports about the wide range of disasters occurring around the globe, many companies are not adequately prepared, industry executives said.

“With every disaster/business interruption we have experienced—from 9/11 to the Northeast blackout to the 2004 hurricane season to Hurricane Katrina—we are still seeing that companies are not adequately prepared for all situations they may encounter,” said Palermo. “Typically, we notice that plans tend to be as good as the last interruption an organization has experienced.”

While large corporations often have contracts with business-continuity and disaster recovery centers operated by large providers such as IBM Corp. and SunGard, many small and midsize firms either do not have plans in place or rely on tape—a relatively unreliable storage medium, according to some surveys.

“Whether a manmade or natural disaster, the need to recover from an unexpected loss of data is becoming more and more mission-critical,” said Brian Anderson, chief marketing officer at Avamar, Irvine, Calif., which developed a scalable solution for enterprise data protection that provides online accessibility, storage and protection of information assets. “What’s happened is people have realized disaster recovery is a lot more difficult to do than to talk about. When you start putting it into practice, you find the little things that bite you.”

But even if a company has a disaster recovery plan in place, it must test it annually and keep it up-to-date, cautioned Cal Braunstein, chairman, CEO and executive director of research at Robert Frances Group, a Westport, Conn.-based provider of IT consulting services and research. Businesses also should consider formulating a business continuance plan that encompasses more than IT and data resources, he said.

“In most cases, the backup recovery is better done and better prepared than business continuance. You may have companies that have backup capabilities on their systems and they’re working with IBM, SunGard or somebody,” Braunstein said. “It really depends on the size of the company: Most of the very large companies have very good disaster recovery plans.”

In Hurricane Katrina, a Louisiana university lost 20 years of cancer research, he said. The reason: Most of the data—x-rays, patient files—were not computerized and, therefore, were not backed up. By not considering off-site storage, either online or at a facility hundreds if not thousands of miles away, some companies’ best-laid plans were rendered useless, said Anderson.

“With Katrina, we saw the backup tapes of corporations literally floating down Canal Street in New Orleans,” he said.

Planning for the Wrong Disaster

Planning for Disaster

In addition to their data-protection and recovery plans, businesses must consider long- and short-term scenarios.

Some New York financial companies have data centers in both Manhattan and across the Hudson River in New Jersey, said Braunstein. While data would be safe in a contained fire in the financial district, a hurricane or terrorist attack most likely would impact both sites, he said.

On the other hand, some San Francisco companies have data centers in Arizona or Virginia and have split the workload between the two sites: The odds are good any disaster would not impact all locations simultaneously, said Braunstein.

“Most of the plans are based on, ‘We’ve lost power to the building’ or ‘We lost the building somehow,’” he said. “Most of them were localized. ‘We lost our building,’ not ‘We lost our county.’”

And, while sending employees out-of-state for several days or weeks is feasible, businesses must consider the far-reaching implications if—as in 9/11 and Katrina—areas are disrupted for months or years, Braunstein said.

Before 9/11, one Chicago company, for example, planned to take its backup tapes via plane to its SunGard site in New Jersey, he said. After the terrorist attacks, no planes were allowed to fly—effectively rendering this firm’s plan useless, said Braunstein.

“If you are hit with something like Katrina or 9/11, you cannot count on your staff picking up and going elsewhere,” he said.

Smart Planning

Planning Stage Solution providers can work with clients to proactively develop a plan of survival. Tamp Computer Systems, for example, has software designed to help customers create a disaster recovery plan, said Tom Abruzzo, president and CEO of the Merrick, N.Y.-based developer and consulting firm.

Regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPPAA, in conjunction with this year’s hurricane season, are forcing some organizations to put well-thought out plans in place, he said. About 60 percent of clients purchase the software and do the planning themselves, with the remainder selecting Tamp’s consulting services, said Abruzzo.

Using the software, businesses come up with a recovery timeframe objective, develop a business impact analysis and write a plan to meet that target, he said. The plan includes disaster declaration procedures, notification to plan participants, creation of recovery teams, emergency procedures and contacts, identification of mission-critical operating specifications (such as SLAs and operating sites), a plan to rebuild and restore inventory and a glossary of terms, Abruzzo said.

“[Companies] really should talk to their line-of-business folks [to find out] how long of an outage can they sustain,” said Braunstein. “If you can’t service your customers for a day, with they still remain your customers? How about two days? A week? Two weeks? The line-of-business people know this—or at least they should. Business continuance [plans] must be owned by line-of-business.”

In addition, corporations should know what the type of disastrous scenario not covered in the plan, he noted. Taking these steps can save millions, if not billions, of dollars.

“A trend we are seeing in action today, with Hurricane Katrina, is customers who chose to move towards an information availability solution that allowed them to keep their information up and available and get their people connected as soon as possible, despite interruption,” said SunGard’s Palermo. “They did this by implementing a blended solution that protected their data and people with disaster recovery planning, missed with solutions such as server, application, data and Website hosting. With this type of plan in place, they were able to recover in a matter of hours, not days, because their most critical applications and data were already protected with SunGard and it was just a matter of getting their people to a safe recovery location and providing them, via a network connection, with the most up-to-date data.”

Surge in Calls

Following each disaster or before expected events, such as Hurricane Rita, disaster recovery and backup companies experience a surge in calls from harried IT managers and business owners.

“We have had several hundred calls in the last week,” said NovaStor’s Andrews. “Over the last few days—almost since Katrina—we’ve been receiving phone calls from people who wanted data back up.”

But, until businesses buck the status quo, the spike will be short-lived, and companies will continue to suffer preventable loss due to inertia.