Internaut: A terrible time to learn valuable lessons

Shawn P. McCarthy

As I'm writing this, less than a week after one of the nation's most destructive natural disasters, no one in and around the Gulf Coast was worrying too much about computer technology. Still, the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina delivered some strong lessons for the government IT community. Here are some thoughts on how cities can take a regional approach to avoid at least a few disaster-related IT issues in the future.

Like many municipalities, New Orleans had an emerging WiFi mesh network. A few months ago, digital cameras on that network proved useful at capturing images of criminal activity. But unless every wireless device on the network has a backup power supply, WiFi mesh networks become useless when streets are flooded and electricity is out.

Lesson learned: Current outdoor 802.11x networks are vulnerable in disasters.

Solution: Even though WiMax systems are still evolving, cities might want to look to WiMax as a better mesh solution. WiMax can reach for several miles. If multiple communities work together to build regional WiMax mesh networks, multiple hubs can be located around disaster areas, with a greater probability that some hubs will remain functional and provide connectivity even in the heart of the disaster area. Powerful WiMax also means fewer total hubs and fewer backup power sources.

This doesn't mean that WiFi will go away. WiMax can also be used to aggregate traffic from localized WiFi systems, channeling it into a network backhaul.

In times of emergency, city workers and first responders will need a reliable network with low data traffic in order to do their jobs. Thus, cities planning to sell the excess bandwidth on their wireless mesh networks might want to reconsider that plan. Disasters are likely to cause an increase in competing data traffic from private citizens.

While most cities have 911 emergency systems, only a few have 311 systems, or some other high-volume trouble ticketing process for non-emergency calls. When a large disaster hits, a 311 system can be a good way to keep non-emergency calls away from 911 lines, while keeping a long-term record of all the problems and repairs that will be needed as a city recovers.

Backup, backup, backup

Besides these network issues, a powerful hurricane is a good reminder that government offices also need to cover the basics of data protection. Does your municipality or government agency have redundant data centers? Do you have a backup process in place for all data and applications, including data on desktop PCs? Do you have backup plans for network failure, perhaps through a formal agreement with a service provider, or through an arrangement with a nearby community capable of offering temporary use of their network or facilities?

The big IT lesson from Hurricane Katrina is that all of these issues must be considered. Disasters can never be totally avoided. But with proper planning, IT systems can continue to function even through the worst of times.

For more advice, including best practices, check out the Network Interoperability and Reliability Council Web site at www.nric.org. If you're in the emergency response field or want to learn how other areas respond to emergency conditions, the Homeland Security Department offers Lessons Learned for Information Sharing. Apply at www.llis.gov.

Shawn P. McCarthy is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC of Framingham, Mass. E-mail him at smccarthy@idc.com.

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