In a nondescript office park in Gaithersburg, at the end of a winding road to nowhere, sits a nearly windowless brick building, unidentifiable except for the number 75. It is the cutting edge in corporate disaster recovery--a modern-day storm shelter.
Behind reinforced walls, bulletproof glass and doors that unlock with a purposeful click-click lies an empty room of 110 identical cubicles. On each desk sits a telephone and computer--unused, but on and ready. The temperature is unnaturally constant and cool. The room is slightly dim on a bright day.
If a company's offices were disabled by a disaster--natural or otherwise--it could send its employees to this data-recovery "hot site" and stay in business. Powered by millions of dollars in computer equipment, the center can replicate a company's computer systems, data and phone numbers within hours, or less.
Disaster recovery is a growth business, and the year 2000 computer glitch has made it even hotter. Recovery Point Systems, which just opened this data bunker in Gaithersburg, hadn't planned to open until January, but says demand was so great that it made the move early.
"The level of anxiety over Y2K is very high," said Marc Langer, president of Recovery Point. "That's what's driving people right now."
But even without the threat of Y2K computer glitches, disaster recovery has become a major issue for all kinds of businesses. Many corporate executives feel a heightened sense of risk about the threat of terrorism, computer sabotage or workplace violence. And with companies more reliant than ever on PCs and the Internet, they have also become increasingly vulnerable to any kind of failure. For some companies, losing power in a hurricane or an ice storm could mean millions of dollars in lost business.
"I tell you, it keeps me up at night," said Susan Hardey, network administrator for NEA Member Benefits in Gaithersburg. A subsidiary of the National Education Association, Hardey's company markets and administers various benefits available to NEA members, such as insurance. If its 800-number call center were to go down, she said, it would be--in a word--a disaster.
Hardey's company already backs up its computer data at an off-site storage facility, but she is looking for even more protection. She needs a place to send key workers, so the phones can be transferred immediately and payroll can be met for 150 NBS employees.
"We realize that if our building gets burned down, struck by lightning, bombed, whatever, we need someplace to bring up certain functions," she said. "What has really brought it to people's attention is the whole Y2K issue."
A decade ago, most of the computing power in a typical company was centralized in a mainframe computer system. That kind of data was relatively easy to back up and get to in case of a failure.
In an emergency, a company could just dial into a backup system operated by a data storage company. It might have been clunky, but it generally got the job done.
Now, though, computer power has spread out to networks, desktops and online. And as prices have fallen, far more companies, and far smaller ones, have come to rely on technology in every aspect of their business.
"Organizations that two, three, four years ago could go a week or more without their computer system now find themselves much more dependent on those systems," said Barry Sandler of SunGard Recovery Services Inc. of Wayne, Pa., also in the disaster recovery business.
"There's a big market for that very local sort of presence," said Franco Turrinelli, a business services analyst for William Blair & Co. in Chicago.
Recovery Point hopes to dot Washington with several of its high-tech facilities. The idea for the business was born out of its parent company, First Federal Corp., a multimillion-dollar Gaithersburg data storage business founded by Langer and his father-in-law, Theodore Lombard, 17 years ago. For years, First Federal's main business was backing up data, mostly from mainframe computers. But the company began to realize that clients don't just need a way to get their data, they need a place to send their people to work.
"Seventy-five percent of our existing clients don't have a plan for where to go if there's a disaster," said Sandra Swan Guidera, vice president for First Federal.
Recovery Point estimates that about 1,000 companies in the Washington area need some kind of emergency plan to get their businesses back up quickly.
"Time is what's critical in all this," Guidera said.
One recent industry study looked at the cost of downtime for different kinds of businesses. For a Wall Street brokerage, it showed that the cost of a total system failure could reach more than $6 million an hour. Losing a catalogue sales center could mean a loss of $90,000 an hour.
That's making more companies think of disaster recovery as a type of insurance plan. Typically, companies buy a subscription to a data recovery center and pay a monthly fee for the right to use the center whenever disaster strikes.
At Recovery Point, a subscription starts at about $1,000 a month, which would buy 20 to 25 seats in the Gaithersburg center during a disaster. In an emergency, that company would pay $1,000 a day. To reserve the use of all 110 cubicles at the center costs $10,000 to $15,000 per month, and that much per day during a crisis. The company declined to provide revenue estimates or projections.
Of course, for that kind of money, Recovery Point needs to offer a lot. It can re-create just about any operating system a company uses. It also keeps hundreds of unused phone numbers so that a company's phone system can be instantly diverted to the recovery center. And every desk has a high-speed Internet connection.
And it goes without saying that Recovery Point can't go down itself. The company has a backup generator that can keep the building operating for week. It has a $100,000 interim backup power source that prevents even the slightest blip in the power supply. It has lightning protection. And it will soon have redundant communications service with two separate fiber-optic lines into the building, through two separate Bell Atlantic switching stations. If one gets cut, the other picks up the work.
"We can assure people that it would take something truly extraordinary for us to lose power or communication," Langer said.
All of that allows John Davis to feel a little more secure. He is manager of the systems services group for Booz Allen, the giant consulting firm in Tysons Corner, one of the first companies to subscribe to Recovery Point's service.
It wasn't just the approach of New Year's Eve that was making Davis nervous; it was everything.
"You look at the news, and the terrorist activity around, and the threats made against businesses in the U.S., and you think about that, too," he said. "Of course, you like to think it can't happen here, but you have to be prepared. You never know what's going to happen. You just don't know."
Recovery Point Systems
Business: Provides a relief center to businesses in case their offices become disabled, where computer systems, data and phone numbers would be replicated within hours.
Established: Just recently opened its data bunker.
President: Marc Langer
Monthly cost to clients: Starts at about $1,000 a month to reserve 20 to 25 seats at the center, and $1,000 a day for use during a disaster.
* First Federal, Recovery Point's parent company, has 35 employees.
SOURCE: The company
Here is how much it could cost per hour for a few types of businesses if their operations were totally disabled, according to one study:
Brokerage firm $6.5 million
Credit card sales authorization center 2.6 million
800 number promotions firm 199,500
Catalogue sales center 90,000
Airline reservations center 89,500
SOURCE: Contingency Research Planning