E-mail courtesy of Curtis + Ginsberg Architects
E-Cards: Firms communicated their status by sending out mass e-cards to their clients and business partners.

Many design and construction companies affected by Hurricane Sandy harnessed the powers of technology to serve their clients and remain operational in the aftermath of the storm.

Investments that paid off the best were virtualization tools and cloud-based private networks, say some firms. To communicate, most firms rerouted e-mail, sent out mass e-cards (see example at left) or used social media to alert clients and employees with key updates. Others went to much greater lengths and the difference showed.

For Jason Burns, vice president of technology for construction manager firm Hunter Roberts Construction Group in lower Manhattan, four years of disaster planning—and investing in virtualization technology—paid off after Sandy's arrival. The storm surge flooded its office building's sublevels, cutting power and displacing hundreds of employees, who were able to work remotely until they were able to get back into their main office.

But long before flood waters hit the firm's headquarters at the World Financial Center near the surging Hudson River, Burns and his IT support team already had activated their disaster-recovery (DR) plans. They rolled all of Hunter Roberts' critical network systems into the firm's backup system. Barely a day after Sandy hit, the employees were back online, working from virtual offices set up around the New York City metro area.

The estimating division regrouped at a jobsite on Manhattan's Upper East side; the purchasing group headed for the Upper West Side. Meanwhile, the accounting groups split off to two jobsites: one in Philadelphia, the other in Brooklyn. All the dispersed employees were able to log back into the company's network as though they were in the office. They had access to key data and applications, including company phone numbers, thanks to virtualized server systems in the firm's data center.

By using virtualization software by vendors such as VMWare, Burns and his IT team were able to "drop in" networked offices; monitor each site's power use, security and connectivity from a central location; and distribute the employees' office numbers to their new locales by using Voice-over-IP.

Asked for the investments that paid off, Burns cites server virtualization, security and Voice-over-IP (VoIP) technologies. Another key investment for DR, he adds, is that the firm only buys laptop computers so employees can login from remote locations. 

"We were managing this in the trenches, from the president to everyone else in the company," he says. "A lot of planning paid off." However, he adds, none of the planning would have paid off fully without the right IT team in place. Many employees had left their laptops at the office the weekend before Sandy hit. Burns and his IT group fetched some 60 laptops from the then-powerless office and went on a distribution mission to get them in the hands of displaced employees. The DR plan, he adds, simply "wouldn't have happened without the IT team."

The Network as the Computer

Structural engineer Thornton Tomasetti (TT) lost power for four days starting on Monday night, Oct. 29, at its 225-person, three-floor headquarters in midtown Manhattan. TT's business-continuity strategy included many of the tools that Hunter Roberts used, including security and IP technologies. The firm's ace in the hole is its system that backs up all New York City office data in its Chicago office through its wide-area network (WAN).

"There is an image of New York City's project information on our Chicago server that is read-and-write accessible," says Steve Ross, TT's chief information officer.

Employees in any of the firm's U.S. offices who were working on a New York City-area project were able to access the data from Chicago's servers. "We back up both ways in Chicago and New York, currently, " says Ross. Three other, smaller offices back up to the cloud, he adds.

In addition, all the external phone calls coming into TT's New York City offices were routed to Chicago, Ross says.

Power came back on Nov. 2. On Nov. 3, IT personnel were back in TT's office to reconfigure the systems so they would be operational on Monday, Nov. 5.

At press time, TT's New York City phones were still down. However, through VoIP, TT is able to leverage its WAN so that people in all the firm's offices can port their numbers. Meanwhile, all their clients and business partners have the cell- phone numbers of TT employees. TT sent the numbers out in a mass e-mail on Oct. 31.

Social media did its part to help amplify the power of networking investments. For example, design firms Perkins + Will and FXFOWLE used Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to stay in touch with clients and employees.