Dec 18 2017
Data Center

Disaster-Ready State and City IT Systems Weather the Storm

Robust IT systems are at the center of effective city and state operations, but preparing for disasters is only part of the challenge.

It's no secret that state and city agencies require resilient IT systems. Yet, keeping operations running during hurricanes, earthquakes, cyberattacks and other events can prove daunting. A recent string of natural disasters — including hurricanes Harvey and Irma — offer a harsh reminder of what's at stake.

The challenges are magnified as smart city initiatives and other digital programs take shape. However, some cities, including Miami and Los Angeles, have begun investing in more sophisticated IT frameworks that will better prepare these communities when waters rise or the “Big One” comes.

"Resiliency is at the center of effective IT operations," observes Neil Bright, research scientist and chief HPC architect in the Office of Information Technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "It's an issue no agency can afford to ignore."

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Miami IT Rises to Meet Sea Change

Rising sea levels represent real-world risks for citizens of low-lying Miami, Fla. During hurricanes and tidal events, a growing swath of the city is at risk. And projections show that water levels could rise by as much as 6 feet over the next century.

"Rising sea levels would have a profound impact on the city and other coastal areas," says Kevin Burns, chief information officer for the city of Miami.

As a result, Burns and other city officials are exploring a variety of ways to protect infrastructure and IT assets. This includes installing connected devices and sensors at seawalls and other strategic locations.

The Internet of Things (IoT) will help the city monitor conditions and issue alerts — if and when conditions become dangerous. A smart city framework also will switch on pumps and other equipment as needed during a hurricane or other disaster.

In addition, Miami has focused on better protecting data and systems.

"As the technology environment changes, it's important for us to keep up," says Burns. This has required officials to analyze the value of different systems and data repositories and build out storage — including flash array, hybrid array and cloud-based systems — to address the challenges in a cost-effective manner. Burns is also studying public-private partnerships to boost backbone fiber and take on other key infrastructure initiatives.

Los Angeles’ IT Team Rolls Forward in the Face of Earthquakes

The City of Angels is no stranger to major earthquakes. The 1994 Northridge quake resulted in billions in damages. As a result, Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin has put earthquake preparedness at the top of IT priorities.

L.A. currently has a divided approach for the recovery of critical IT systems in the event of a major earthquake, fire, terrorist attack or other disaster, he notes.

"With the safety of 4 million people at stake, we need to protect critical IT operations if we don't want all of our other emergency planning to be compromised."

Galperin is now leading an effort to develop a citywide business continuity plan and establish a steering committee to achieve greater clarity on the role of the Emergency Management Department (EMD) and how it interacts with and supports other government entities, including the police and fire departments.

There's also a focus on modernizing hardware and software across nine critical IT systems, including police dispatch and network communications, and the city's financial management and payroll systems.

At the center of everything, Galperin notes, is building redundancy into core infrastructure, improving data and systems backups, and ensuring remote access to IT systems in order to minimize or avoid IT interruption during an earthquake or other disaster.

Diversity Is at the Center of Resilient IT Systems

Bright notes that there are two things at the center of an effective resiliency plan: network diversity and geographic diversity.

"Like nature, a diverse ecosystem is a healthy ecosystem," Bright says.

He adds that a strategy should translate into actionable steps, including placing backups and business continuity systems in a location outside the danger zone and using multiple network providers for data centers. It's also crucial to understand how and where to use the cloud strategically and which IT systems to modernize first.

"Technical debt creates new and bigger problems," Bright explains.

To be sure, a resiliency strategy cannot be left to chance. Bright says protecting systems revolves around four key components: establishing a clear roadmap, building in vendor and geographic diversity, testing disaster readiness and addressing constantly changing business and IT conditions.

"The worst possible thing is for crucial systems to go down,” he says. “We live in an era of growing connectedness and interdependence. Resiliency is critical."

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