Drawing lessons from Sandy's wrath

The impact of Hurricane Sandy has been felt across the world, but businesses should learn lessons from nature's power.

This week's images of Hurricane Sandy crashing into the eastern seaboard of the United States have been nothing short of terrifying. The storm has wreaked havoc – with damage estimated at US$24bn – and so far, claimed 74 lives.

This was in the world's richest nation and one where, this time at least, the authorities appear to have been well prepared. Proportionally, Caribbean nations have suffered worse: Cuba, for example, says that 200,000 homes have been damaged.

And the effects of the storm have been felt much more widely than in the US and Caribbean.

In New York, the New York Stock Exchange was forced to close and even now, sections of Manhattan are without power. The subway network is a long way off returning to normal operations.

Further afield, it will be some time before the international airline network recovers from flight cancellations. Shipping and logistics have also been disrupted. It is the loss of internet services, though, that might yet have the greatest global network.

The greater New York area is one of the world's most important concentration points for internet traffic. This nexus of networks and data centres supports businesses far beyond the US East Coast, with data centres, "carrier hotels" and internet exchanges both in New York and New Jersey; the area is home to 150 data centres, according to Datacentermap. A number of large companies, especially in financial services, have their backup and disaster recovery facilities in the New Jersey area.

The range of companies affected by flooding, and also the loss of power and connectivity, is wide. New York based news site, The Huffington Post, reports that its data centre was damaged; other companies were forced to "fail over" to datacentres elsewhere in the US, or in Europe, with those that lacked such arrangements relying on diesel generators to provide backup power.

That more sites and services were not affected is again down to preparation, as well as a measure of luck. Rackspace, a large data centre provider with a number of sites on the US eastern seaboard, said that it had been planning for storm disruption for some time. Another data centre provider, Nirvanix, moved its customer data out of a potentially vulnerable New Jersey site before the storm hit.

None the less, not all businesses have escaped the impact of the storm. London staff at one international marketing services company say they have had only sporadic email access all week, as their traffic is routed through New York, and contingency arrangements appear not to have worked as intended.

Of course, it is wrong to compare losing access to a few days' emails with the loss of a home, let alone a life. But the fact that some companies have prepared for Sandy, and largely escaped disruption, while others have been caught out, is an important lesson.

It is also a lesson that has not been lost on the US authorities: government agencies there reported to be modelling data from Manhattan's power outages to see what might happen, in the event of a cyber attack on critical infrastructure. If that helps government, and business, plan for disruption in the future then some good will have come from Sandy's destruction.

  • Our thoughts are with all those affected by Hurricane Sandy.
  • Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro