Hurricane Sandy exposes major weakness in networks

by Todd Bone on November 1, 2012
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Hurricane Sandy exposes major weaknesses in mobile network architecture for consumers and business.

NJ, NY, and CT residents are asking:  Why is my cell phone not working? The real question is more basic - what happens to mobile networks when the power goes out?

Picture: Verizon's headquarters flooded courtesy of Huricanne Sandy.


Old fashioned dial-tone is trumping cell service as extended power outages cripple supposedly advanced networks. Were these high-tech marvels designed to operate without power? Apparently not.  It is particularly obvious that whatever backup power systems were in place were intended to bring temporary outages or short duration. The result is that millions are currently operating in the “Zero G” world of no service rather than a 3G or 4G connection.  In many ways, this is inferior to the old fashioned land line which operated much more consistently even when power was out.  Todays’ Wall Street Journal reported vastly increased usage of pay phones on the streets of NY.

This is an increasingly important part of business continuity as more and businesses cede control of the device side of the network to the individual device choice, (the Bring Your Own Device “BYOD” movement) and with it controls over disaster recovery.  Employees without cell service are entirely off the grid, and with them, their employers.

It is obvious in retrospect that cell towers are particularly vulnerable in many ways to storm damage. Not only can they be physically damaged by high winds and water, but the network backbones, be they CISCO, Juniper or F5, don’t operate without steady power and definitely don’t work when flooded.  Add to the mix inadequate preparation outside of data centers for extended power outages – such as battery backup systems designed to last 8 hours, or portable generators that run out of gas. Cell towers are located in high locations deliberately – which also makes them difficult to access for repair.

Even networks designed with hardened data centers and loaded with redundant equipment have limitations as well since network traffic cannot consistently be re-routed past physical obstacles, such as flooded tunnels, washed out lines, and blocked roads limiting access to repair crews and employees.

When maintaining a datacenter, a natural disaster plan should obviously address communications and power, but also onsite system sparing in safe storage and off-site redundancy. Independent maintainers can offer hybrid maintenance programs that include these safe guards in order to get entities back up and running to avoid further losses.

The next wave of Disaster Recovery is going to have to address the new mobility paradigm and make better plans for the next storm. 

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Topics: Cisco Maintenance, Cisco, Juniper, F5, network architecture, BYOD, networks

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