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When Disaster Strikes

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Will your network pull through? Switching to wireless broadband is essential to a quick recovery.

THE DESTRUCTION WROUGHT by Hurricane Katrina only weeks before Hurricane Rita was set to strike put the Nederland Independent School District on heightened alert. A southeast Texas district that supports about 5,000 students across eight campuses, Nederland lay directly in Rita’s projected path. With the storm forecasted to make landfall somewhere near the district’s immediate area, Nederland’s technology staff—the caretaker of 14 Internetconnected labs serving 1,800 computers—began to prepare for the inevitable.

As Rita bore down, the district did everything it could to safeguard its technology infrastructure, from creating backups of all critical data—physically taking servers off-line—to loading servers into a vehicle and driving them to a more secure location. Network equipment was powered down to protect key assets and minimize any damage that might be caused by the impending storm.

On Sept. 24, Rita struck, and over the next several days caused 54 deaths and more than $6 billion in physical damage, leaving more than 1.1 million people without power. The Nederland district took its share of the blow, incurring more than $10 million of damage to its structures and roofs. No campus was left untouched. Two weeks later, power was returned to the area, and the Nederland technology team began the process of restoring its information services.

A Speedy Recovery

What happened next is nothing short of amazing, as well as instructive. Within two days, all of Nederland’s servers were back online and the network was fully operational. All of the network equipment was functioning, with the exception of one radio that was fixed on-site the next day so that the district’s connectivity could be fully restored.

Neighboring school districts didn’t fare as well. Downed utility poles scattered across the region kept many districts from quickly restoring their network apparatus. The delays left teachers and district staff without critical services, such as e-mail and Web sites with updated district information. The delays also contributed to postponements in the resumption of classes, forcing districts to make up the lost class time by extending the school year and adjusting their scheduled holiday breaks.

What had Nederland done to reestablish network connectivity so promptly while other districts grappled with delays? What made all the difference was the district’s decision to move to a wireless broadband network well before Rita came calling. The districts that struggled to get their networks up again depended on local Internet providers and traditional telecommunications providers.

The lesson to take, in Katrina’s aftermath, is how a fully managed wireless broadband network, with remote turnkey support, is ideally suited for disaster recovery. The solution minimizes the dependency that many schools have on internal support departments and regional telecommunications infrastructures for their network services. With a wireless design, schools can restore their network service more quickly than they can restore miles of downed telephone poles and wires; this allows districts to provide vital information at a time when it is most needed.

Cindy Laird, Nederland’s director of Instructional Technology, says succinctly, “Broadband wireless service was instrumental in our recovery.”

“With a wireless design, schools can restore their network servicemore quickly than they can restore miles of downed telephone polesand wires; this allows districts to provide essential information at atime when it is most needed.”

Thanks a Trillion

To execute its transition from a low-bandwidth infrastructure to a high-speed broadband network, Nederland chose Trillion Partners (www.trillion.net), which it was already employing for a host of other information services. Most importantly for disaster recovery, Trillion’s Network Operations Center provides remote support and ensures that the the district’s network is performing to expectations. The NOC’s around-the-clock monitoring offers, literally, shelter from the storm—“a level of comfort,” Laird says, “that many tech directors do not have.”

In contrast to the toppled utility poles that prevented the quick rescue of other districts’ information services, none of the 110-foot wireless radio poles installed throughout the Nederland district required any repair. Fortunately, all of the network’s fiber-optic cables that connected the equipment on the poles to district buildings were buried well below ground.

Meanwhile, during the three-week evacuation that ensued in Rita’s wake, Trillion, as part of its remotely managed service program, hosted the district’s e-mail so that Nederland administrators and teachers were able to access their e-mail and stay in communication. In addition, the company temporarily hosted a Web page for Nederland so that the district superintendent could post critical information for teachers and administrators, as well as for parents, residents, and patrons of the area. As a result, the Nederland community was able to keep up with the status of the recovery process from across the country, wherever the evacuees had sought refuge. The district’s technology team also did not have to endure the lengthy downtime and recovery process that other technologies would have required.

An Ounce of Prevention

As Nederland’s story illustrates, disaster recovery is more than salvaging the data from a failed hard drive or having a sound backup strategy. It’s the ability to get the network and all its components functioning as swiftly as possible, so that normal classroom and administrative activity can resume.

Laird says that disaster recovery should be regarded as part of a district’s overall technology plan. “Districts should implement networks that lend themselves to quickly getting back online after a disaster,” she says. “All districts should ensure critical data is regularly backed up and taken off site. Recovery plans should also include plans for restoring data in the event of a loss of hardware or software, as well as including a provision for providing alternate power sources in the event power is disrupted.”

Fortunately, the E-Rate program, initiated as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, has helped accelerate the conversion to wireless broadband networks across educational campuses. The program brought more broadband services within the reach of many school districts, which could then take the burden of having to manage their networks off their staffs and rely on the service providers to handle things. In particular, wireless broadband is an ideal solution for many rural areas, where fiber-optics and other broadband access services are either cost-prohibitive or nonexistent.

So why then, in light of the many advantages of a wireless network, have so many districts not yet made the switch? In many cases, the reason is a mere reluctance to change. Upgrading to wireless would mean a long and arduous administrative process that some districts simply don’t want to undertake. Many districts may feel their area is impervious to a calamity on the level of a hurricane, and choose to make the issue of disaster recovery a low priority.

With the National Weather Service (www.nws.noaa.gov) predicting an increase in hurricane-related activity in the years ahead, forethought is a better policy than finger-crossing. School districts—especially those in vulnerable areas, but even those that aren’t—need to think about disaster recovery as they upgrade their information systems. Districts that want to be ready for another type of disaster—a potential terrorist attack—are looking for alternatives to technology that might be a target of such attacks. They would be smart to consider the benefits of a wireless broadband network and a competent, remotely managed service and support infrastructure. As Nederland’s Laird has learned, the greatest benefit a managed wireless network offers is peace of mind: “I know that I don’t have to worry about our next network failure.”

Jonathan Kantor is the president and founder of the Appum Group (www.whitepapercompany.com).

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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