RealTime IT News

What's Working After 9/11

As the United States and millions around the world stop to commemorate the fifth anniversary of 9/11, I'm thinking about what's working, and working well, amid the multi-faceted stories in front of us today.

When phone lines were jammed up and down the east coast after the towers fell, as local television stations were knocked off the air and cellular networks were overwhelmed or went dark, e-mail messages and instant messages still got through.

Web sites may have been flooded with traffic and sluggish, but they stayed up.

It was the Internet that helped many businesses stay in business, long before they figured out where to site their physical offices in the aftermath.

For many, what were once routine e-mails or instant messages turned into lifelines.

Thanks to a brief instant message that popped up on my computer screen that morning, I was among hundreds of people whose fate was re-routed on Sept. 11.

As I scurried to leave my desk around 7:30 am in order to dash downtown for an information technology conference, I received an instant message from a fellow editor telling me he had to work from home.

In a split second, I decided to make sure our offices had staff on site, as a matter of policy when other editors are working from home.

No problem, I typed back, as I sat back down in my chair. It was a two-day conference. I would cover day two on Sept. 12.

The conference was being held in the Windows on the World restaurant in the north tower of the WTC, above where one of the planes hit.

One firm, Starpoint, whose offices were near the towers, was back on its feet within days of the towers' collapse, virtually. It did so because it had other networked offices far enough from the WTC disaster so that they could re-route their networks, including software development systems for clients.

Starpoint's story was one of thousands of improbable information technology feats that many firms, immediately cut off from their businesses, pulled off in the days following the collapse of the towers.

The scramble for office space in Manhattan and the region proved to be many firms' biggest struggles. But in the virtual world, they were back up in record time.

Other companies opened their doors with offers of temporary workspaces. Two days after the attacks, 53 investment bankers who had escaped the World Trade Center were back at work, virtually, thanks to another firm's offer of Internet access and office space.

It wasn't easy, and the issues were huge: How will telephone switches be reconfigured? What about DNS re-routing? How do you switch over for intranet and Internet addressing?

Technical researchers and computer scientists warned of much-needed improvements.

"Internet service providers and users need to address some operational issues to better prepare for and respond to future emergencies in light of the useful role the Internet played after the attacks," said the National Academies' National Research Council, in a report soon after Sept. 11.

"The terrorist attacks provoked a national emergency during which we could see how the nation and the world uses the Internet in a crisis," wrote Craig Partridge, a chief scientist at Cambridge, Mass.-based BBN Technologies.

"Overall, the Internet displayed not only its resilience on Sept. 11, but also its role as a resource."

The council's advice echoed other groups at the time: Review your dependency on the Internet and plan accordingly; put contingency plans in place, set up hot sites, or a mirrored back-up system in a remote location; plan for backup electricity.

While plenty of companies in the financial services industry that dominate the WTC area already had disaster recovery procedures in place, many smaller businesses didn't and probably still don't, if only for the sheer cost that backup plans incur.

But that's improving, thanks to the lower costs of networked-attached storage, and the advances of distributed networking.

This isn't to say all is well. The privacy issues -- especially from data breaches that bedeviled the industry then -- have only worsened. We're only now seeing how easily our privacy -- whether it's our search patterns, e-mails or even phone calls, are open to more scrutiny by the government.

The debate over this will rage on, as will our coverage.

We've also seen how easily the code red and Nimda viruses brought network traffic to a standstill, more so than the impact of Sept. 11.

And there are plenty of questions about whether a virus helped knock the electricity grid of the Northeastern U.S. and Canada offline during the big blackout of 2003.

There are many issues to be mindful of today.

In the midst of all the commemorations, of remembering the victims of that day, and the questions of whether we are any safer, I'm also thinking of the outpouring of caring and generosity that flowed from that tragedy, and the behind the scenes work of improving security of our networks that continues today.

It is a similar theme in Oliver Stone's movie "World Trade Center."

Like many of those first responders in the movie, IT pros are hard at work behind the scenes. They're doing it away from the cameras, microphones and media: building on remote back-up plans, pushing their systems' needs to the top of management's agenda, and building even more redundancy into a system that proved how resilient it is on one of the most tragic days in this country's history.

Erin Joyce is executive editor of internet.com's news channel