Backup systems save the data when disaster
of the indelible images of the World Trade Center attack is the
towers spewing clouds of smoke and debris. Among the rubble were
thousands of pieces of paper from some of the world's largest financial
Do you need to worry if it was one of your account
transactions floating 110 stories down? Probably not.
Although the financial complex was destroyed and many
lives lost, most transactions processed through the New York offices
of companies such as Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, and Credit
Suisse First Boston remain secure.
Those firms enter clients' account activities into
computer systems and then employ network backup and data protection
systems. The information is duplicated and stored on computers in
separate locations far from Lower Manhattan.
That includes everything from stock transactions to
debits on banking accounts to account numbers. And the backup mechanism
runs anywhere from daily to continuously.
Digital duplication already
"Bottom line is that all the information digitally stored on
computers fell under the disaster-recovery plans that these firms
had spent decades planning for and hoped they wouldn't have to put
in place," says Charles Rutstein, a research director with
Research in Cambridge, Mass.
"The only potential [for data loss] was with
the incidental things," says Rutstein. "Things that might
have been in paper and that hadn't been processed."
Although nobody has a firm number on how many companies
employed such data safety efforts, Keith Gile, a senior industry
analyst with Giga
Information Systems, Norwalk, Conn., says "You could knock
me over with a feather if less than 100 percent of the companies
had some sort of back up and disaster recovery in place."
For example, Comdisco
Inc., a Rosemont, Ill.,-based provider of data storage and recovery
services, is currently working with 37 customers, the majority of
which had offices in or around the World Trade Center.
"Some were also in markets like Chicago, Atlanta,
San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston where they had buildings evacuated
and need to find other places to work," says Comdisco spokesman
Available backup options
Services provided by Comdisco and its competitors range from storage
of computer data to setting up work sites for employees.
Comdisco operates 45 disaster recovery centers worldwide,
including 23 in North America. These sites are equipped with phones
and computer systems where companies can move in the event a disaster
forces them from their regular offices.
The financial companies, too, have backup systems
in place. The most sophisticated systems actually "mirror"
some or all of a company's computer operations.
For example, a company's transactions would be recorded
not just by corporate computers at the World Trade Center, but also
across the Hudson River in New Jersey where the company might have
an additional data center. Backup centers can be even farther away,
in places such as Iowa, Texas or Florida.
On Tuesday, according to one financial analyst, Morgan
Stanley was able, despite the devastation to its New York offices,
to successfully switch over to backup systems in the South in less
than an hour.
Not the first backup experience
Most financial institutions also have had plenty of experience with
backing up computer data. Fears about Y2K prompted many companies
to overhaul and refine earlier data backup plans.
And companies that were tenants of the World Trade
Center in 1993 when a terrorist truck bomb exploded already had
a dress rehearsal for this week's disaster. After that attack, many
companies beefed up their backup systems and disaster recovery procedures.
Although it varies from company to company as to what
backup mechanisms were in place, most if not all had backed up --
duplicated and stored data off-site -- the night before the tragedy.
That means all transactions up to that point would have gone through.
But no system is foolproof, and some financial dealings no doubt
That includes paper transactions mailed to the companies'
New York offices but not processed before the buildings were hit.
Transactions that arrived but were logged in early Sept. 11 also
were probably lost, as were any "in transit" computer
entries that were interrupted when towers were struck.
"Maybe a half to 1 percent of all transactions
[at the World Trade Center] would have been interrupted," Giga's
These transactions will have to be reconstructed by
the affected companies and their clients. Because there won't be
any "electronic trail" of these stock sales, deposits,
or other financial move, information on backup systems won't be
much of a help.
But Gile stresses this is a low percentage indeed.
Companies that were especially hard hit by terrorist
attack are already reaching out, in spite of their employee casualties,
to customers to reassure them that client data and assets are safe.
In a letter posted on the Morgan
Stanley Web site, Chairman Philip Purcell seeks to reassure
"We want our clients to know today that in spite
of the tragedies, all of our businesses are functioning and will
continue to function ... All our clients should rest assured
that their assets are safe and our financial advisers are hard at
work contacting our individual investors to answer questions and
address their concerns."
Lehman Brothers, whose offices in the nearby World
Financial Center are inaccessible, has told clients via its Web
site that business activities have been moved to alternate Lehman
Brother locations and that the company "continues to serve
our clients around the world."
"What's important is that financial institutions
and brokerage houses set up communications lines with customers
and they are in the process of doing that," Gile says.
Personal component can't be
The biggest challenge to reconstructing customer information won't
be in recovering data from earlier transactions. It will be the
human loss of information that resided in the people who handled
"That will be the hardest thing to replace,"
Forrester's Rutstein says.
Another data recovery hurdle: recovering information
that was stored on individual employees' computers rather than a
company network. This type of information is seldom backed up or,
if it is, not on a regular basis.
"The most difficult thing is the human loss,"
agrees Comdisco's Maganini. "It's very tragic. But the fact
that the buildings aren't there any more is also important.
"It's an enormous issue. Whenever we've had recovered
companies before, they've had buildings to go back to. If a flood
forces them out, water can be pumped out and the office fixed up,"
he notes. "But you can't do that in this case."
Indeed, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center
is taking financial institutions' disaster recovery plans where
they were never designed -- or wanted -- to go.
Jenny C. McCune is a contributing
editor based in Montana.
-- Posted: Sept. 14, 2001