Quake Rattles IT at Seattle-Area Firms

The Boeing Co. and Amazon.com Inc. were among Seattle's high-tech companies rocked by Wednesday's earthquake, which for many IT departments was the first time their disaster plans received a real-world test.

According to representatives from several corporations, structural damage in many cases was kept to a minimum because many of the buildings have been modified over the past two decades with top-floor, load-balancing counterweights or placed on roller devices.

Some of the worst hit, like Boeing, lost telecommunications and were forced to shut down offices and manufacturing facilities for days after the earthquake, which registered 6.8 on the Richter scale.

The jet maker, which is the region's largest employer, shut down production after reporting damage at its Everett and Renton, Wash., assembly plants. Boeing suffered severe setbacks to its computing operations when one of its buildings' fire-suppressant sprinkler systems went off during the 40-second quake, destroying computer systems throughout the building.

Preparation Pays Off

Earthquakes and other types of disasters are something that Christopher Kent, vice president for computing and network operations at Boeing, never really expected. But he has always prepared the company's IT operations for such situations. And as he looked out at the exhaust from a backup diesel generator Wednesday, he knew that at least one phase of the planning was paying dividends: It turned out that the building he was watching pitch and roll is one of Boeing's critical data centers.

With more than 400 offices around the world, Boeing's data centers can't go off-line -- ever. Boeing's uninterruptible power supplies had kicked in along with the diesel generator. The company's network was up, and links between Seattle and a mainframe data center in St. Louis were live. The 400 Microsoft Exchange servers used to process e-mail for 162,000 end users were unaffected.

Amazon.com employees were forced to work from remote locations the day after the quake. The online retailer's Seattle headquarters building suffered minor structural damage, according to Patty Smith, director of corporate communications.

"We all breathed a sigh of relief when we heard our Web site was up and functional," she said. "We took precautions to ensure that in the event of a natural or man-made disaster, we would have the ability to shift workflow and productivity so there would be minimal disruption to our customer base."

The company was also able to reroute customer service calls to centers in North Dakota and West Virginia when Seattle telephone networks became overloaded.

Not so easily controlled were the dogs in the headquarters parking lot of Amazon, where employees are allowed to bring their pets to work.

"The dogs were having a great time once they got out of the building," she said. "They were pretty freaked out."

Terabeam Corp. a Seattle-based developer of technology that links buildings via lasers beamed through the air, said nine of 12 links connecting buildings in Seattle were temporarily lost. The lasers, which strike optical transceivers hidden beehind office building windows, can automatically move to accommodate some degree of sway, spokesman Lou Gellos explained.

But Gellos said his company's technicians had to manually adjust transceivers at the 522-foot Smith Tower after it swayed, knocking the laser target out of alignment. Like most structures in the area, the building was evacuated.

Heidi Saas was handing the man across the counter his mocha coffee when the downtown Seattle Starbucks began to sway and the long line of customers turned and rushed out through the store's glass front doors.

"Since we're in a food court, we jumped under the tables," the coffee shop supervisor said.

There was no damage to Saas' shop or point-of-sale systems, but Starbucks Coffee Co.'s Seattle headquarters wasn't so fortunate. IT systems that link the company's retail point-of-sales terminals to a central bank of servers went off-line Wednesday. Only stores in the Seattle area were affected because of power outages.

This story, "Quake Rattles IT at Seattle-Area Firms" was originally published by Computerworld.

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