In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, commentators have all weighed in on the remarkable resilience and steadfastness of Internet communications during the storm. Failover steps were taken to reroute Internet traffic from the New York metro area to alternate locations like Ashford, Virginia; Washington D.C.; Chicago; and the West Coast.
With very little latency or interruption, Internet traffic seemed to flow seamlessly. This was due in large part to failover and resiliency measures that had been built into major service providers’ networks and switching equipment.
I witnessed this myself first-hand. Safely on the West Coast (and away from Sandy), I had anticipated that most of my New York communications would be nonexistent or reduced at the height of the storm. Instead, business and communications kept rolling at near normal levels. Yes, this was a testimony to Internet resilience and survivability -- but there were also other operable factors.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast with sustained 125 mph winds. Katrina’s widespread devastation, and the slow emergency response efforts, are well chronicled.
I remember Katrina because I was working with several companies in the New Orleans area. The focus was IT -- and maintaining operations and communications so the businesses wouldn’t risk long-term devastation from the storm, and also the potential loss of business that could result from their inability to maintain communications and services with their customers.
When I think back to Katrina, my natural impulse is to think holistically. No doubt, the same industry writers and pundits at that time could have proclaimed the Internet was resilient and available -- but that wasn’t the reality that many Katrina-stricken companies were experiencing.
Of the companies I was dealing with during Katrina, two had both wireline and wireless Internet ISPs. They were able to failover to wireless Internet service, which stayed up throughout Katrina -- and they didn’t miss a beat when it came to staying open and available for business.
Two other companies were less fortunate. They didn’t have multiple Internet access options in place, and when wireline Internet went out, they were out of business. One organization resurrected its business, although it took several years to do so. The other business never recovered, and ultimately failed.
Finally, there was the large enterprise that managed to fly out critical IT staff to its leased disaster recovery site in Pennsylvania, where it operated in failover mode and continued to do business. But even this company did not go unscathed. Many of its chief IT contributors could not get to work, or were burdened by anxieties because they didn’t know if family members were OK. In one case, an IT staff member was killed in the storm.
No one who was affected by Hurricane Katrina and its impact on IT will ever forget it. Fortunately, we learned lessons, and the case studies of these “Katrina companies” became models for many enterprises as they developed their own Internet survivability strategies.
What companies learned from Katrina was that Internet survivability in itself was not enough. To further mitigate the risk of being offline for excessive periods of time, virtually every company today has multiple ISPs and multiple ISP access modes (such as wireless and wireline).
Enterprises have also revised their operational workflows so employees can now (thanks to a resilient Internet) easily work from home with an online broadband connection. During Hurricane Sandy, for instance, most of my New York contacts told me that their Manhattan offices had shut down, but that they were continuing to work from home.
So, what's the takeaway from this? That enterprises, and not just the Internet itself, have achieved survivability by morphing themselves into multi-ISP networks with operational failover contingencies like home offices that keep employees working. Sandy demonstrated this beautifully -- giving hope to those of us who still painfully remember Katrina that there will never be an IT disaster of Katrina’s magnitude again.