Having the backup when the heat is on

October 5, 2001

A fire ravaged the informatics department at City University in May, but Anne McHardy found high and low-tech procedures saved vital programs.

Two days after a fire destroyed a third of City University's century-old main campus on St John Street in London, Ginny Williams, professional liaison director in the School of Informatics, was tense, worried even.

The room that housed the 18 servers for her department was on the fourth floor, at the heart of the fire, and she had not been able to get into her fifth-floor office to assess what programs had been lost.

Four months later, back in her office, she is delighted at the recovery work. "We lost a few emails, but everything else was retrieved."

Twelve servers had simply "melted", says John Knight, responsible for the informatics online tutoring programme. The professional liaison office was largely undamaged, but staff access was impossible for several days and 100 other informatics offices were destroyed. Streets over a wide area were blocked off because of the instability of a gable end that eventually fell.

Informatics, by its nature, relies heavily on computers, with teaching materials and students' work stored on departmental servers. The department was the worst affected in the university.

Williams had special reason to be worried. Students involved in a new City online programme for undergraduates spending three years in industry, Professional Pathway, had just delivered their material. Luckily she had backed up a teaching module, being introduced the day of the fire, at her home. But she had no idea what other materials were gone or when her department would be operational.

She had heard of the fire when a friend phoned late on Monday, May 21. "She lives near and had seen flames." The next day, Williams had to oversee presentations not only by second-year students on traditional one-year work placements but also presentations to interested employers.

The day went well. The presentations to employers took place, although not in the scheduled buildings. Lunch was served from tables in corridors. The students' presentations from their placements were postponed. It was only on Wednesday, when Williams was in Manchester speaking at a conference, that she really started to worry. Her support people had told her that she had automatic backup every night. This was going to test it.

The informatics department was saved from the real catastrophe of lost materials by two things. One was low tech. Recurrent thefts meant staff made a habit of backing up work on to the department's network and on discs to take home. That habit meant that some material was off site and could be reinstated onto alternative servers very quickly, even if it had not been backed up on the university's fail-safe system.

The second was high tech: the backup system itself - the empire of Kevin Swindin, director of information services, who is responsible for computing, library and audio- visual provision throughout the university.

He has a separate team looking after informatics, responsible for the automatic backup of all materials saved onto the informatics' network every night. Data saved only on PCs is not backed up automatically. The informatics department's good habits of backing up material no doubt stood it in good stead. Data are saved on tapes and stored in a fire-proof safe.

The university's most sensitive data, its financial records for example, are stored on tapes that are driven off site every night to safe storage. It is, he believes, "pretty much a standard system".

Swindin says that if those responsible for backing up information for the firms devastated by the attack on the World Trade Center were not using some similar system, they were not doing their job properly.

He says the safe in which the informatics data wer stored was in the building affected by the fire but on a lower floor. The department's servers were in two rooms on the fourth floor, on which the fire started. By good fortune, one room was not affected and it housed the server with WebCT, the program used to support the Pathway students, which meant that once alternative routing was in place, WebCT continued running.

The problem was that staff could not get to their machines. The university system is segmented, with informatics having a private segment.

The central team changed the network configuration within days so that informatics could work from other offices to access their backed up information. Order re-emerged quickly, helped by the fact that the university's main server continued to run.

"We had the email back up by the end of the next day. We had a web presence back up the same day, and progressively over the next four to six weeks servers were rebuilt and the local server and file store was restored," Swindin says. Two computing rooms remain unusable.

"I think that the actual computing side of it was fairly calm and collected because what needed to be done was fairly obvious and it was sequential," he says.

Since the fire, people throughout the university have been more security conscious. "I have a sense of people talking about backups more."

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