Backup systems ensured continuity of military networks during storm

Trees were uprooted in the Washington, DC area over the weekend including this one on Capitol Hill.

Trees were uprooted in the Washington, DC area over the weekend including this one on Capitol Hill. Alex Brandon/AP

Commercial networks didn’t fare as well.

The Defense Information System Agency experienced power failures at an Ohio data center and its Maryland headquarters following Friday’s destructive storms, but fall-back systems ensured uninterrupted service. That was a sharp contrast to Amazon, which saw its Virginia data center knocked out by power outages.

Tracy Sharpe, a DISA spokeswoman, said the storm, which ravaged the Midwest and East Coast and knocked out power to 2 million people, briefly interrupted data center operations in Columbus, Ohio, and knocked out power to its headquarters at Fort Meade, Md.

But backup power systems in Columbus quickly picked up the load until commercial power could be restored. Fall-over to alternative systems at Fort Meade and Columbus “was immediate and service was unaffected,” Sharpe said.

DISA has procedures in place to transfer operations and management of all information technology capabilities through a global system of network operations centers. “In this particular case, the transfer of operations resulted within minutes and there was no loss or interruption of control,” she said. DISA customers “sustained no operational impact during the transfer of operations and management,” Sharpe added.

The lack of power in much of the greater Washington area hit some links provided to DISA by commercial carriers but Sharpe said, “we have sufficient capacity and diversity that there was no operational impact to our mission partners.”

The Washington Post reported Monday that Amazon Web Services, a commercial cloud provider angling for federal business with the launch of a government cloud in August 2011, lost both primary and backup power on Friday, with full restoration of service on Saturday.

The Amazon data center in Virginia provides cloud services for a number of highly visible commercial customers, including Netflix, which acknowledged its customers had trouble connecting to its movie streaming service.

Bernie Skoch, an information technology consultant and retired Air Force brigadier general who did a tour at DISA, said the difference between Amazon and the Defense Department agency is simple: if DISA's service goes down, people’s lives are literally at stake.

When government officials consider the merits of commercial clouds versus internal data centers, they also must factor in issues such as continuity of service and backup capacity along with efficiency and economy, he said.