In a dimly lit office accessible by an underground tunnel, dozens of telephones sit silently on desks topped with powered-down computers. Even during business hours, empty chairs line rows of vacant work stations.
But this ghost office deep inside a bland suburban office park will likely be bustling with activity before the end of hurricane season as companies with locations in any hard-hit areas around the South fly in employees to keep their businesses running.
The office, one of Hewlett-Packard Co.’s 70 disaster recovery centers around the world, is a home away from home for HP’s corporate customers when their buildings are shut down by natural disaster, security threat, terror attack as well as more mundane power and system failures.
It’s part of the rapidly growing disaster-recovery industry that specializes in keeping businesses afloat even when their buildings are under water or otherwise inaccessible.
“This part of the business didn’t exist five years ago,” said Mark Vanston, a senior strategist with Hewlett-Packard. “Five years ago, people didn’t think of office recovery. They just thought of data. Now they want places people can go that feel like an office in case of disaster.”
The need for backup plans was highlighted five years ago by the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which disrupted the business of some of the world’s largest financial companies and forced the New York Stock Exchange to close for four business days.
Rise in demand
Since then, the pace of the industry’s development has quickened, particularly in the South after last year’s devastating hurricanes, said Ed Devlin, a disaster specialist and author of the upcoming book “Preparing Your Executives to Manage a Crisis.”
Mid-sized companies that can’t afford to invest in their own recovery efforts are beginning to look to companies like HP, IBM Corp., SunGard and others. And even large corporations with their own contingency plans have turned to disaster-recovery services to help handle some tasks, such as payroll.
“This is a fundamental concern on the part of any operation. It’s everybody’s job to be prepared for disaster — not just the people in the computer center because everything is at risk,” said John Copenhaver, president of the nonprofit Disaster Recovery Institute.
IBM has seen an upswing in demand for its dozens of data recovery sites and three mega-centers in the U.S. — even in low-risk areas thanks to a spate of regulatory and statutory requirements designed to protect information, said Don DeMarco, the company’s vice president of business continuity and recovery services.
Not everyone's thinking ahead
Yet despite recent interest, many companies remain reluctant to plan for the worst.
“We encourage companies to really focus on which business processes are most precious to the firm,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot more energy, but there’s not enough. There’s kind of a big surge of interest around hurricane season, but it falls off.”
Randy Ostler, the chief information officer of Miami-based Intermex Wire Transfer LLC, an HP customer, said last year’s hurricane season reinforced the importance of a disaster plan.
The building that once housed his company was so shoddy, he worried the computer system for his financial company would falter when it rained. So he moved the office to a more secure building and updated the firm’s disaster plans.
“Downtime is lost business,” he said.
During the height of last year’s hurricane season, HP’s emergency office in Alpharetta suddenly became packed with corporate refugees. Sixty-six of the company’s clients in affected areas came to rely on the center to keep their operations running.
It’s connected to the main HP building through an underground passage. Connections to the outside world — from power to data — have two backups to provide safety nets. And the building is fed by multiple, high-bandwidth Internet connections.
Banks of computers can quickly be programmed to boot company software to handle call services, payroll or other crucial services.
The office’s heating, cooling and power are monitored by maintenance staff, and specialists watch network connections to secure them against intrusion, viruses and industrial sabotage, said Richard Light, the building’s manager.
In all, the facility has roughly 500 seats, enough room to accommodate several companies in private office space so competitors don’t have to worry about working side-by-side. In the parking lot, several “hitching posts” sit where companies can link mobile trailers.
Down an empty hall, a dark room welcomes exhausted techies who can take a nap and watch TV. Another room sports comfy leather couches and an Xbox video game console. Down the hall, a lounge with a foosball table and a fully stocked snack-and-juice bar awaits.
“We’re looking at all risk factors here,” said John Bennett, HP’s worldwide director of business continuity.