IT staff acts as wildfire advances on Pepperdine's data center

IT staff acts as wildfire advances on Pepperdine's data center
IT staff acts as wildfire advances on Pepperdine's data center

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By Patrick Thibodeau
October 22, 2007 

The first warning that Timothy Chester, the CIO of Pepperdine 
University, had of the wildfire that would threaten the Malibu, Calif., 
campus came when the power went out in his home. It was 5 a.m. Sunday.

Within a matter of hours, brush fires came within 100 feet of the data 
center -- and there was a point, said Chester, where =E2=80=9Cwe had serious 
concern that the data center itself was going to be jeopardized.=E2=80=9D

Chester lives on the 830-acre, Pacific Coast campus and heard the backup 
power systems in his house switching on. Looking out from his hilltop 
home, it was apparent that the power was out throughout the campus. 
Chester quickly left for the data center, and as he drove to it, he 
could see light from the fire on the other side of a ridge.

Chester wasn=E2=80=99t the only one on campus who moved into action. Other 
administrators were responding as well, and by 5:30 a.m., the campus 
administration had called a meeting of the university's Emergency 
Operations Committee.

The Malibu wildfire was out of control Sunday morning and remained that 
way throughout the day; the Los Angeles County Fire Department=E2=80=99s Web 
site Sunday evening described fire at =E2=80=9C0% containment,=E2=80=9D with 1,200 acres 
already consumed. But in a telephone interview Sunday night, Chester 
said the immediate threat to the campus had passed.

A wild weekend for the IT crew

On Sunday morning, however, Chester was by no means certain of the 
fire=E2=80=99s outcome. IT staff had been paged, and a half-dozen staffers were 
working to ensure that the data was safe.

Wildfires are an ongoing threat in the area, and the university is 
prepared for that contingency as well as other threats. It routinely 
sends its backup tapes to Iron Mountain Inc. for protection. In 
addition, the latest tape backup copies were moved to a fireproof safe. 
The ERP applications were shut down, and the hard drives were removed 
and also safely stored. All that work was completed in 35 minutes, said 
Chester. It was still before 8 a.m.

=E2=80=9CThe whole purpose of planning is to make sure you've always got 
options,=E2=80=9D said Chester, =E2=80=9Cso that when you find yourself in a situation, 
you are familiar what those options are as opposed to having to think 
them through with very little response time.=E2=80=9D

While the IT staff scrambled, the fire advanced toward the data center 
building and nearby university administration building. =E2=80=9CWe had about 10 
minutes' notice that the fire was coming down the hill this way,=E2=80=9D said 

Firefighters from Los Angeles County and other jurisdictions acted 
immediately. There were about 25 firefighters in the way of the 
advancing fire =E2=80=9Cwhose entire goal was to protect the buildings,=E2=80=9D said 
Chester. =E2=80=9CThey were able to contain those fires and keep them from 
spreading further,=E2=80=9D he said.

Pepperdine=E2=80=99s University Data Center never went offline, ensuring the 
campus of network services, including voice communications.

=E2=80=9COur staff remained in the data center operations area as long as the 
building fire-/smoke-detection system was not triggered by outside smoke 
or fire -- and that never happened,=E2=80=9D said Chester.

Inherited wealth

Among the means used to alert the campus, include a system put in this 
year by 3n (National Notification Network LLC), a Glendale, Calif.-based 
system that can use voice and text messaging, including instant 
messaging, pages and other means, to alert people to an emergency. The 
system has also been installed at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., 
since shooting rampage there earlier this year.

Pepperdine canceled classes Monday, but students who were relocated to 
other parts of the campus were allowed to return to their dorms by 
mid-day Sunday according to a notice on the campus Web site.

Chester says he has only been CIO for seven months at Pepperdine, =E2=80=9Cso I 
get to take no credit for any of this.=E2=80=9D Instead, he said he has 
inherited =E2=80=9Ca very good organization [that] has over 100 years of 
experience managing and responding to incidents such as we saw today.=E2=80=9D

=E2=80=9COur faculty, students, and staff were well served today in this regard 
by a very experienced team,=E2=80=9D said Chester.

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