When an underground steam pipe exploded right near Grand Central Station in New York City on July 18, 2007, it looked like the end for Seeds of Peace, a nonprofit organization that helps teens from conflict-ridden regions learn the skills of making peace.
Fayth Centeno, the office and HR manager of the organization, was still at home but her sister called to tell her. "I saw my building on TV and there was steam all over. But I thought we'd go back the next day," she says.
But fate can be cruel, even to a nonprofit organization.
Utility provider Con Edison next shut off the power to the building, and then removed Seeds of Peace's servers. "Fifteen years and there was nothing left," says Centeno. The situation was exacerbated when asbestos was discovered, further delaying employees from returning to the building.
But all was not lost, thanks to a back-up plan that Seeds of Peace initiated when the organization decided to outsource its IT.
Data Was Backed Up -- Off-Site
In a panic, Centeno called Mindshift Technologies, the organization's managed services provider, and discovered that because all the data Seeds of Peace had was backed up off-site, it was all safe. Mindshift also transitioned Seeds of Peace's 47 employees to a hosted server to get the organization up and running again, and then set them up with new servers.
"We didn't lose anything," says Centeno. "It was priceless."
anaged services providers aren't free, but many smaller companies can't afford in-house IT. Centeno says that Seeds of Peace spends $6,300 monthly on IT expenses for its 33 employees plus 14 consultants. Paul Chisholm, CEO of Mindshift, says that typically businesses spend between $70,000 to $100,000 annually on their services, about the salary of one IT employee, but they receive the expertise of an IT staff.
IT Expertise, Remotely
Companies like Mindshift provide the IT expertise through remote access -- a convenience that is often worth its monthly costs to smaller companies. According to Howard Marks, founder and CEO of Networks Are Our Lives, an IT consulting firm, with managed service providers smaller businesses get the advantages of IT tools that the big corporations use without the IT investment. The set fees of managed services also mean predictable expenses for smaller businesses -- and a service that employees will actually use. "The service contract model works for smaller businesses," he says. "Users don't have to get approval to call IT, so they will call more often."
Smaller businesses often don't have in-house IT staff, so by the time there's an IT issue that requires a consultant it's usually expensive because there was no preventive maintenance. "When you sign up with a managed service provider they get alerts if there's a problem," says Marks. "There are minor things that go wrong that you don't see. Your managed service provider gets an e-mail if, say, your mirrored hard drive is down."
And in the event of a disaster, the recovery process is indeed invaluable.
As is typical of most smaller businesses, Centeno says that when Seeds of Peace was looking to ramp up its IT infrastructure four years ago, the organization wasn't thinking as much about disaster recovery as the need to network the disparate parts of its growing organization. With offices in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, and New York City, as well as consultants all over the world -- in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and India, to name a few places -- quick and productive communication was essential to the company's smooth operations.
"We needed a new IT infrastructure," says Centeno. "We had in-house IT people, but our needs weren't being met. The organization had started to grow quickly and we needed to communicate. It's a huge part of our operation. Disaster recovery wasn't on our minds."
According to Chisholm, many smaller companies don't consider disaster recovery when thinking about their IT strategies. "They don't want to pay for that," he says. "But it's pay now or pay later."
As he notes, Seeds of Peace's IT plan recognized that "they couldn't have all the expertise in a small organization." Most smaller businesses go through this phase, adds Chisolm. "They hire one IT person but they need experts and they can't hire all these people. They need enterprise-class service."
Remote access, he says, is a key component of that strategy.
Seeds of Peace "saw they needed off-site data storage. There was a sense that the existing backup systems [of tapes] weren't reliable. People weren't following the process and the tapes themselves could be destroyed," he says.
Chisolm adds that in general, smaller companies tend to take the tapes, put them somewhere, and then no one can find them.
Marks agrees. "If you don't have in-house IT, you shouldn't have a tape drive [as backup]," he says. "Smaller businesses are notoriously bad about backing up their data and even more notorious about getting it off the site. They're busy."
Outsourcing IT Makes Economic Sense
Outsourcing Seeds of Peace's IT operations to Mindshift wasn't that costly compared with what its needs are, according to Centeno. She says Seeds of Peace would have had to increase its IT staff and they didn't have the servers they needed to link offices. Once they signed up with Mindshift, everyone in Seeds of Peace was networked and, no matter where they were located, all employees worked off the terminal servers.
"In Egypt or Tel Aviv, they can pull out the same files," she says. "And things are backed up on a daily basis."
That last point proved most significant last summer when the underground steam pipe exploded right in front of Seeds of Peace's building in midtown Manhattan. According to Centeno, "Boulders from the street came through the office. There was water damage."
The organization's employees still had access to applications and e-mail and were able to work remotely. "The system was set up that as long as the building still had electricity, they could work," says Chisolm.
Situation is Bad, and Gets Worse
But the power to the building was fluctuating and asbestos was discovered in the building, which meant no one was allowed into the office. The organization moved to a temporary location; its four servers had batteries that could keep them going for a while, but Centeno knew they had a limited life. "That's when I panicked," she says. "I needed to make sure everyone could work."
Things went from bad to worse. Access to the building was permanently denied, Con Ed shut the power to the building, and then removed their servers -- all without notice.
"We were working and then everything went down," says Centeno. "We called Mindshift."
According to Chisholm, if Seeds of Peace hadn't contracted with a managed services provider, they would have been out of business. "We have a centralized system that is shared by multiple users," he says. "We moved their systems to a secure facility in Virginia and in 10 minutes we're hosting their system in a different facility."
According to Centeno, Seeds of Peace was offline for four hours on a Tuesday morning. "We had their backup data and files, so they could get old e-mails and information," says Chisholm. "The test in a disaster is how fast can you get users back to business as usual."
The company then ordered new servers for Seeds of Peace, which cost about $45,000 and which arrived that Friday. They were set up in Mindshift's Network Access Center in Virginia and over the weekend, Seeds of Peace's information was transferred onto the new servers. "We were fully functional on Monday," says Centeno.
Chisolm says that smaller businesses need to always consider the worst-case scenario: What if our building burned down? Is everything backed up off-site?
As Marks says, if backup is done electronically, it happens automatically, at the very least on a daily basis. "Someone else is dealing with it," he says.
For Centeno, that's all that counts. "We are absolutely grateful that they were on their toes and did what needed to be done," says Centeno. "They had a plan."
Naomi Grossman is assistant editor of bMighty.com.