Cities Adopt Cloud-Based Approaches to Disaster Recovery

New York City and Asheville, N.C., have both adopted private clouds to provide disaster recovery services, with promising results.

by / December 19, 2014
New York City’s newest cloud-based app is Vision Zero View, an interactive tool that details traffic injury and fatalities, and highlights the city’s response to make the streets safer. via nyc.gov

Information technology downtime is a costly proposition. Based on industry surveys, it can cost an organization as much as $5,600 a minute, or well over $300,000 per hour in losses, according to IT research firm Gartner. But the costs and complexities of traditional approaches to disaster recovery can be expensive too, especially for smaller jurisdictions. As a result, some cities are leveraging the cloud to provide a cost-effective way to maintain services in the event of a local or regional emergency.  

Asheville, N.C., historically maintained its data center redundancy through a local disaster recovery center, located just two blocks from the city’s primary data center. But when Asheville CIO Jonathan Feldman came on board, that scenario made him uncomfortable. 

“Anything that can take out City Hall can probably impact something that’s two blocks away as well,” he said. “It was sort of a thorn in my side. But disaster recovery is not the easiest thing to get money for, so we struggled a bit to find a solution.”

At one point, the Asheville IT Services Department planned to piggyback on the construction of a new fire station, which would have allowed  it to outfit one of the rooms in the station with a disaster recovery system at a minimal cost. But after the construction project failed to materialize, the city was back to square one, and Feldman began looking for a new approach.

But when he examined traditional disaster recovery systems in the price range his city could afford, Feldman was disappointed.  

“Most didn’t allow you to test their services adequately,” he said. “It left me wondering, is that resource that we’re paying a lot of money for really going to work when we need it?”

It also left Feldman wondering why the city was looking at building its own infrastructure, when it could rent instead.

Eventually, Asheville took the cloud approach, leveraging Amazon Web Services and software from CloudVelox. The cloud-based approach allows the city to test its disaster recovery system frequently and at a low cost. The city can now enter disaster recovery mode for a couple of days and a few hundred dollars. 

“The ability to exercise our systems in an automated and cost-effective way is a huge benefit for us,” Feldman said. “You spend money because you want it to work when you need it. It’s IT -- something always breaks. You need to be able to test it thoroughly.”

Utilizing a cloud-based solution, the city also eliminated the ongoing hardware costs of operating a physical disaster recovery facility while allowing Asheville to extend disaster recovery protection to a greater number of important, yet unprotected systems.

“I have a lot of confidence that the resources are going to be there when we need them,” said Feldman.  “Today, if we have a catastrophic backup failure, like we did a few years ago, with this particular application our downtime would be minimized.”

Feldman said he’s had a small amount of negative reaction from the public for choosing a cloud-based approach to disaster recovery. 

“In my opinion, there are smart ways to approach the unknown and dumb ways to approach the unknown,” he said. “If there's going to be a benefit to a way of doing something and not a lot of people have done it yet, it doesn't automatically make it an unreasonable risk, it just means you have to prepare. That’s the approach that we've taken with cloud computing here. For it to no longer be fear of the unknown you have to make it known, so we put effort into making cloud computing known for us, and I think it’s paid off.”

New York Apps 

Though it’s hardly small, New York City is also adopting a variety of cloud-based disaster recovery applications. The first app was developed immediately following Superstorm Sandy and allowed inspectors to document roadway and infrastructure conditions using their own consumer-based technology. The city then plotted the data on a map with photos to enable a quick and easy way to assess damages. 

“It allowed our agency executives on up to our commissioner to be able to show as well as describe the impact of the storm on the city’s roadways and infrastructure,” said Cordell Schachter, chief technology officer for the New York City Department of Transportation.

Since then a number of cloud-based mobile and Web applications based on Amazon Web Services have been developed and are in use in the city, according to Schachter, including several designed to make real-time transportation information more accessible and useful to residents and visitors, such as an interactive map of city parking regulations, a pedestrian city travel planning app, and online maps of construction sites and capital projects. 

“The cloud-based approach has proven valuable both from an accessibility and a security risk management standpoint,” said Schachter. “Accessibility is probably the first most important feature for us. During emergency periods when a local system here in New York City may be compromised, partnering with a cloud provider who is geographically diverse from us ensures that the services are available when we and the public most need them.”

Moving to the cloud did pose a few challenges for New York City, however. 

“The biggest challenge is if you’re totally in a private cloud or a private data-center environment, there's a learning curve in terms of programming to optimize those services in order to get the best value out of them,” Schachter said. “You also have a vendor management issue now where you didn't have it before.”

Despite the challenges, Schachter said cloud backup has been successful so far.

The city’s newest cloud-based app is Vision Zero View, an interactive tool that details traffic injuries and fatalities, and highlights the city’s response to make the streets safer. Approximately 4,000 New Yorkers are seriously injured and more than 250 are killed in traffic crashes each year. The Vision Zero View map displays crash types, dates and locations dating back to 2009 and allows the information to be filtered by block, type of injury, or type of incident (vehicle versus bike, vehicle versus pedestrian, etc.). It then highlights initiatives such as arterial slow zones, planning workshops and expanded traffic enforcement, major safety projects, as well as other long-running safety programs designed to make trouble areas safer. 

Vision Zero View is modeled after a plan created in Sweden and is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goal to reduce New York City traffic fatalities and serious injuries in New York City.

Justine Brown Contributing Writer