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Continental Airlines moves into bomb shelter

Continental Airlines moves into bomb shelter
Continental Airlines moves into bomb shelter 

By Sharon Fisher
October 09, 2006

Continental Airlines Inc. last week ran its first full-blown test of a 
new disaster recovery facility that it opened earlier this year in an 
former bomb shelter built by an eccentric Chinese oil baron.

The Houston-based airline decided to improve its business continuity and 
disaster recovery facilities last October after hurricanes Katrina and 
Rita, said John Stelly, managing director of technology. At that time, 
the company's off-site facility was located just 20 miles north of 
Houston and ran on the same power and telecommunications grid as the 
city, he said.

In March, Continental chose a bomb shelter run by Westlin Corp. in 
Montgomery, Texas. The shelter, which about 50 miles north of Houston, 
was originally designed in the 1980s to support up to 700 people for 
months. The facility extends 50 feet below ground and is not only 
farther from downtown Houston but is also served by a different power 
company and is on a different power grid, Stelly said.

Continental signed the lease by May 15 and had completed some 
retrofitting by July 1. While the airline had done some testing since 
July, the first full-scale operational test, which featured Continental 
running its entire organization for one shift from the facility, took 
place on October 3, Stelly said.

The facility takes up about 2,000 square feet of the 40,000-sq.-ft. 
underground bunker, which is where servers and other equipment are 
housed, Stelly said. The facility's primary shortfall -- literally -- is 
that its ceilings are only about 10 feet high, so Continental dealt with 
that by using shorter racks and more square footage, he said.

Stelly is not sure to what extent Continental will make use of some of 
the bunker's more eccentric facilities, such as 1,000-pound 
concrete-filled blast doors, jail cells and gun ports.

In addition, Continental leases 12,500 square feet in a four-story 
building next door to the shelter that was built to the same standards 
and at the same time as the underground facility by the same designer. 
The building is made of reinforced concrete with bulletproof glass. Both 
facilities feature two generators with enough diesel fuel on-site to run 
for a couple of months, Stelly said.

Inside, the building is set up like any other Continental office, right 
down to the Continental logo and carpeting so employees will feel at 
home, Stelly said. There are 275 Intel-based Hewlett-Packard Co. DC7600 
workstations with Philips Electronics NV 17-in. and 19-in. monitors on 
the desks, including some with dual monitors, he said.

Inside the bunker, an Avaya Inc. S8700 IP private branch exchange is set 
up to run the voice capability with a local survivable processor, which 
provides all the features if the connection to the main system is lost; 
a Hewlett-Packard storage-area network; and Intel-based HP servers that 
run the applications, which are primarily custom software that keep 
Continental's 375 planes flying, Stelly said.

Between the bunker and the building is dual-fiber connectivity, and 
connecting the building to Continental's WAN are two 45Mbit/sec. 
circuits, Stelly said.

Continental is not revealing the price of the project, but it was "a few 
million dollars," Stelly said. Despite the new equipment, it was 
cost-effective compared with services such as those from SunGard Data 
Systems Inc. because the company did a lot of the work itself, he said.

Once a month, technical support people visit the site to certify 
everything and make sure updates are performed, and twice a year -- once 
in the spring before hurricane season, and once in the fall after 
hurricane season -- the organization will run a full-scale operational 
test, Stelly said.

But there's more to disaster recovery than just having the equipment in 
place. It's also important to have the procedures for how to implement 
it as well. By consulting with city, county and state emergency 
management personnel in the Gulf area, and through consulting with the 
Texas Engineering Extension Service, part of the Texas A&M University 
System in College Station, Continental has developed a more 
comprehensive business continuity plan.

For example, because the regional emergency management authority plans 
to call for evacuation two days before a hurricane makes landfall, 
Continental will make its evacuation call three days before landfall, 
Stelly said. Continental's chief operating officer can make the decision 
to activate the off-site location, based on a Category 3 or greater 
hurricane that is projected to make landfall within a 100-mile radius of 
Houston's central business district.

Continental has also contracted with a local hotel in the area to put up 
its staff, as well as with a bus company to provide transportation 
between the hotel and the disaster recovery site. It is the employees' 
responsibility to get up to the hotel, but once they're there, they will 
be taken care of, Stelly said. In addition, because organizations have 
learned that employees will take care of their families first, 
Continental will fly employees' families to other cities where they have 
friends and family, he said.

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