Ontario enterprises stick to contingency plans

With continued orders from the Ontario government to ease up on power consumption in the wake of North America’s largest power outage in history, Ontario enterprises are operating as best they can, and appear to be following contingency plans to ensure availability of mission-critical applications and services.

Toronto’s Bank of Montreal (BMO) announced Tuesday that is has restored normal customer services in its Ontario branches and automatic banking machine (ABM) network.

Despite the multi-city blackout, which kept most of Ontario and parts of the U.S. in the dark for nearly two days, BMO told IT World Canada it was well-prepared for the power outage. A spokesperson for BMO’s information security department said the financial institution has back-up power systems in place that automatically kick-in when power supply is cut, and assured customers that personal data was not compromised during the failure.

In a statement, Pam Robertson, BMO’s executive vice-president, Ontario Division, said the bank has been focused on reaching a balance between meeting the essential needs of its customers, while respecting the province’s request to conserve energy.

Robertson added that BMO was able to follow its contingency plans because of regular routine testing and updating of disaster recovery methods – a key factor to ensuring business-as-usual in the event of a disaster, according to Fred Dimson, general manager and director of operations at Veritas Canada in Toronto.

“As always, you learn something when a disaster occurs. There is usually something you can do better,” Dimson said. “(The) first step is to have a plan, and most importantly is to test it out before something like this happens.”

Dimson explained that it is also crucial for corporations to look at their applications closely and ensure that full disaster recovery plans are in place for critical apps. He suggested that while human resources applications may be able to stay down for a few days, payroll applications cannot.

Veritas Canada has been operating at half-power since Friday and Dimson said it will continue to do so until regular power is restored to the province.

General Motors Canada’s administration offices have been receiving top marks from the province of Ontario for doing their part to reduce power consumption. According to Pam McLaughlin, manager of public relations for GM Canada, the carmaker is currently operating at about 50 per cent of its regular energy capacity.

“What we have done to share the pain, so to speak, is we are using electricity to run our computers,” McLaughlin explained. “Our emergency lighting is working, but our main lighting is turned off and our air conditioners are turned off.”

McLaughlin noted that GM Canada was careful when the power died on Thursday afternoon in terms of handling its IT systems. She explained that while back-up generators kept power going to the company’s offices, IT staff was quick to manually shut down the company’s mainframes before the generators, too, gave out.

“We shut down our servers before we lost any data or damaged any systems,” she said. “We also are bringing them back up when we can, using the same method to ensure we don’t jeopardize their integrity. No data was lost.”

Even disaster recovery companies weren’t immune to the outage. After its uninterruptable power supply expired, CBL Data Technologies Inc. in Markham, Ont., turned to its secondary DNS in New York, which was out as well. CBL was dark for a total of approximately two hours, according to Bill Margeson, CEO of CBL.

On the bright side, CBL said although it has received a bump in calls since the blackout, they are mainly from anxious home users worried about possible data loss.

“I think business has responded nicely so far,” said Margeson. “The fact that we are not overwhelmed with business (calls) tells us safeguards were put in place.”

-With files from Michael MacMillan, ComputerWorld Canada