September 11: How Merrill Lynch recovered

Merrill Lynch lost two data centres during the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York. The site is now functioning as a...

Merrill Lynch lost two data centres during the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York. The site is now functioning as a back-up to the primary data centre, which has been moved to Staten Island, on a separate power grid.

Marvin Balliet, first vice-president and chief financial officer of Merrill Lynch's Technology Group, talks about rebuilding after the horror of 11 September and the types of new IT projects upper management is willing to fund.

What physical equipment did you lose on 11 September?
We lost our entire production and development data centre capacity for our corporate functions and for our capital market functions. It was probably one of the largest distributed data centres in the US. What happened is the power kicked back on [after the collapse of the World Trade Centre's twin towers], but the air conditioning didn't. We lost heat here, and we lost contamination [control] in the south tower.

It really gets back to what is re-certifiable. With the heating problem, most vendors would not continue to support the capacity in those servers, and without the vendors' support, you cannot run mission-critical trading or retail systems.

What were some of the other issues that came out of 11 September?
We did not have the infrastructure to support our network operations in Jersey City. Those buildings [had] capacity to house 400 people, and the next thing you know is 1,200 people are in that building. We needed to then go to wireless solutions. The fact that this little card you put in your portable [computer] that allows you to operate as if you're hooked up to a LAN became as important as the machine itself. Now we are working with the permanent replacement of that capacity.

I think there's a greater focus on redundancy and things you took for granted before. Whoever envisioned that the greatest delay in getting buildings back into use was the lack of network capability?

In all of our plans no one focused on e-mail as being mission-critical. Yet, that was the first thing our traders were screaming about, even before they were up and trading. They need e-mail.

What kinds of projects sell to top management these days?
Anything tied to security becomes the easiest - probably only - sell. We're not necessarily going to do [a return on investment analysis] and evaluation on our return if it falls under a couple of categories: business recovery [regarding trading desks] and [continuance and recovery] capabilities.

Access, security and cyber-terrorism: those three categories have become, in my opinion, the easiest sells.

What's the trick to getting the chief executive's stamp of approval on projects?
To get a chief executive to approve a technology initiative is an interesting phenomenon today. The business people are trying to sell it to executive management. The technology people are there to answer questions. Technology basically does not lead or drive any technology request or initiative.

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