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California IT staff prepare for more blackouts

Computerworld
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(IDG) -- The furor over the deregulation-spawned power crisis in California may have abated in recent weeks, but the havoc that it's wreaking on IT systems hasn't.

Rolling blackouts -- an emergency measure aimed at stretching limited power resources by cutting electricity to specified areas in roughly two-hour blocks throughout the state -- have caused several firms to dust off Y2K disaster plans and to implement other contingency efforts.

But Y2K had one advantage over this crisis: predictability.

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"It's not like Y2K, where you knew that it was coming," said Mel Reeves, CIO at ARB Inc., an international maker of oil pipelines in Lake Forest, Calif. One of ARB's sites in Pittsburg, Calif., lost power for 65 minutes last month. That unplanned outage caused damage to computer systems, compromised security and resulted in the loss of a day's worth of transaction data, Reeves said.

"Every time our system crashes, it corrupts a lot of data files, and we have to go to tapes of the day prior, and everything done that day could be lost," said Reeves.

In response to the continuing threat of blackouts, Reeves recently installed an additional uninterruptible power supply -- a backup battery system that supplies power for about one hour -- and two backup generators. The new system, which cost $40,000, also notifies Reeves of a power loss so that IT staff can get to the site to properly shut down computer systems before the alternate power runs out.

Raytheon Co. in Lexington, Mass., has asked its West Coast sites for contingency plans for an "orderly" shutdown of computer systems in response to a 15-minute advanced warning of a power outage, said Paul Christidis, a senior staff engineer at the $17 billion aerospace and defense giant.

"We know how to handle the situation because of the Y2k projects that we convinced management to invest in last year," Christidis said.

"The upside to Y2K preparedness is that many companies already have disaster scenarios in place," said Joel Yaffe, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

"We leveraged the concerns about Y2K to get a diesel generator system, but rolling blackouts weren't a concern back then," said John Burke, computer systems manager at Pacific Coast Building Products Inc. in Sacramento, Calif. The 600-amp generator automatically kicks in after 30 seconds of power loss, but Burke said it's not a "low-cost solution."

Some corporations, including The Charles Schwab Corp. in San Francisco and Egghead.com Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif., said they haven't been affected because they're in protected power grids in financial districts or near fire stations. But firms outside of those protected areas haven't been so lucky.

After suffering through a blackout, Amsterdam Art Inc., a chain of art supply stores in Berkeley, Calif., bought a portable gas generator to keep its warehouse and stores' computing environment running during future power outages, said Lewis Moore, vice president of administration. Moore said he didn't want the firm's point-of-sale server to crash and lose customer spending and analytics data.



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