Thinking the Unthinkable

January 2002
By Henry S. Kenyon

Public and private sectors ponder new ways to do business.

U.S. government and business organizations are re-evaluating their communications network design and resiliency following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Planners are now emphasizing dispersed, redundant, military-style systems that can rapidly retrieve and update lost data or switch to alternate transmission modes to maintain connectivity.

The vital lifeblood of modern governments and the information economy is instantaneous communication in its various forms, and a healthy arterial system to sustain this daily activity is crucial. Although most commercial systems have built-in redundancies to deal with outages, the unprecedented scale of the destruction wrought by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon tore large holes in more than just the local communication grids. Organizations had to locate missing personnel and maintain connectivity with the outside world. Suddenly, large numbers of displaced people had to move to new facilities and immediately begin to restore or reconnect lost or damaged systems.

As a result, many business and government organizations have reassessed their priorities concerning communications, personnel and data security. These evaluations are part of a series of trends triggered by the attacks, explains Robert Fortna, vice president, government solutions, at Avaya. The Basking Ridge, New Jersey-based firm provides integrated voice, data and Internet communications services to a number of government and commercial customers. Many were directly affected by the disasters.

Avaya serves nearly 70 companies that were housed in the World Trade Center complex. While helping these firms reorganize and supporting the needs of government agencies in New York City and Washington, D.C., several major trends became evident, Fortna explains. Organizations expressed a renewed interest in security for personnel and communications systems, accessibility in the event of an emergency or its aftermath, and systems and business models to support a recovery following an incident.

Within two weeks of September 11, firms began examining networks to determine if they were multilayered or monolithic and rethinking their network architecture designs, Fortna explains. This evaluation process is similar to the one used to develop contingencies for year 2000 (Y2K) computer issues. Many of those plans were shelved after that emergency passed, but recent events have again brought them to the forefront. “I believe people in all agencies are reaffirming what disaster plans they have,” he says.

Organizations are evaluating a layered network approach to create more robust systems. Fortna believes this is a key step that will lead to enterprise network architectures that resemble military systems—with redundancies to enhance their survivability. “This kind of thinking has to be a part of every agency’s general planning from this time forward,” he maintains.

An important feature of many military communications is called multilevel precedence and pre-emption (MLPP) technology. MLPP allows commanders to use special codes to gain priority access to a network in an emergency. Fortna notes that Avaya is working with the Defense Information Systems Agency to develop compatible systems for government agencies and commercial firms.

Embedded security features are also in demand. Many of these systems were made available for Y2K applications and can be ordered commercially, William Sapp, Avaya’s vice president for civilian sales, explains. For example, Avaya’s Definity switch features built-in anti-hacking countermeasures and malicious-call-tracing software. Although civilian government planners thought they did not need many of these features, they are readily available. “It hasn’t been a priority in the past,” he says.

Maintaining connectivity in the aftermath of an emergency is another concern among the firm’s clients. Lisa Crisp, vice president for Avaya’s defense sales, cites the example of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The agency provides infrastructure during an emergency. Avaya furnished FEMA with small, trailer-mounted switching platforms that can be transported to a site to provide an affected facility with the connectivity and functionality of a full switching platform. She notes that wireless connections were recently added to the mobile switches to increase their capability.

The potential relocation of large numbers of people and equipment is another issue faced by the government and commercial sectors. Sapp notes that the Internal Revenue Service and Secret Service all had personnel displaced from the World Trade Center. “If you have a mass outage, how do you redirect this?” he asks.

Many organizations are drawing up strategic plans concerning where to send people and equipment in the event of a major emergency. These plans could follow the example of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has long-standing plans to distribute coverage duties among air traffic control centers in the event that one or several facilities cease to function as a result of a disaster, Sapp says.

Fortna notes that government agencies suffer from communications problems that can be corrected through simple measures. For example, many agencies have stovepiped systems with multiple networks that are not interconnected. These systems can be trunked together. Many agencies also have only one call center. Private sector firms like Dell Computer Corporation use multiple, interconnected call centers to provide seamless coverage for customers. The technology to provide these services is widely available for government agencies at little cost and “with little magic involved,” he contends.

Physical security for personnel and facilities is another area of concern. The most immediate methods to protect a site range from posting additional guards to requiring password entry for computer networks or secure areas, notes Fortna.

Additional network security against hacking and cyberattacks can be provided through firewalls and encryption. However, care must be taken to allow authorized personnel and customers access to the system once security measures are in place. Multiple communications paths also provide enhanced security in the event of an emergency. “No one thought information disruption was a threat,” Sapp observes.

The need for backup systems is another trend. The firm’s clients want redundancy in the form of a satellite facility or a mirroring capability to transfer voice, video and data quickly in a “hot swap,” Fortna says. Citing the Pentagon as an example, he notes that after the hijacked airliner crashed into the building, the resulting fires and flooding nearly cut off a vital communications switch. If the switch had failed, there would have been no alternative backup system, he explains. Although multiple government agencies exist in the Washington, D.C., metro area, they do not share a unified communications system. “Why shouldn’t the government have a spare communications system?” he asks, noting that commercial firms such as Bell Telephone maintain mobile backup systems.

September 11 created a ripple effect that reaches all the way to how systems are initially designed, inspiring a push for military-style architectures, Fortna says. Where companies like Avaya once fought government agencies’ resistance to installing voice over Internet protocol systems and ruggedized networks, the new goal is to provide reliable capabilities in resilient networks. Sapp adds that this new thinking is causing civilian and U.S. Defense Department agencies to re-evaluate designs for converged networks such as satellite and wireless systems.

In addition to remote communications, firms and agencies also are expressing a desire for continued on-site access by technicians and experts. This appreciation grew out of the important role these people played in maintaining connectivity in the wake of the terrorist attacks. However, there were difficulties in getting personnel—many of them contractors—on-site at some sealed military and government facilities. Fortna observes that a deployed force of technicians provides customers with peace of mind, and this access can be enhanced via telephone and remote video so that work can continue in secure facilities.

The terrorist attacks also are making many organizations rethink the way they do business. “Two thousand people don’t have an office [as a result of the attacks], but do you need an office? Who says you have to go on business trips anymore now that affordable videoconferencing is available?” Fortna asks. By using technology to reduce threat levels, creating interconnected networks, and adapting mobile business concepts and practices such as videoconferencing, firms can become more flexible and resilient in emergencies. These capabilities were available, but few organizations were employing them, he observes.

Fortna believes this trend marks a new way to think about doing business. The necessary technology is already here; the government and private sectors simply have to activate them, he states.

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Addressing Emergency Needs

Organizations can take a number of steps to address their emergency preparedness requirements, says Robert Fortna, Avaya’s vice president for government solutions. Immediate, low-cost solutions such as alternate trunking, route connection and multiple paths to providers are easily available from companies. Fortna also recommends installing or setting up backup systems such as satellite facilities to provide reliable communications links.

The next level of system protection involves interconnecting network systems such as applications and call systems to pick up the load if a call or switching center fails. Network architectures also must be assessed because they consist of many different elements such as voice, satellite communications and wireless devices. By combining and seamlessly linking these technologies, connectivity is maintained even when one part of a system goes down, he says.

The post-September 11 situation created both the impetus and the opportunity for organizations to investigate business re-engineering plans. For example, one step being taken is establishing enhanced network security policies to counter cyberattacks or direct terrorism.

Fortna notes that most of the ideas on these issues originated in plans for year 2000 (Y2K) events. Organizations did a good job preparing for Y2K-related systemwide failures. The firms at the World Trade Center had contingency plans for terrorism and system failures, but what was not expected was the scale of the destruction. “That’s why you diversify. We all learned a lesson. The good news is the technology is there. The government and private industry own it. It’s a matter of some disciplined thinking about how we get there,” he says.

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