IT officials emphasize need for emergency backup systems

Many government offices must do better at backing up their information systems to preserve important data and ensure "continuity of operations" in the event of a terrorist attack, several federal technology officials said on Tuesday.

"We have not done all that much in this area, except for our national-level systems," Robert Coxe, deputy chief information officer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said during a homeland security conference sponsored by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association. "I think we have a lot of catching up to do."

Despite having effective backup capabilities for its largest systems, FEMA's continuity-of-operations plan for many other systems is "very poor" and typically amounts to "a pile of tapes" containing archived data, according to Coxe.

"We've basically let those systems go one deep," he said, explaining that before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, FEMA did not have the resources to improve its backup capabilities. "Now, after 9/11, there's an enormous amount of attention being paid to it."

Redundant communications and information systems proved invaluable after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, according to Lt. Gen. Harry Raduege, director of the Defense Information Systems Agency.

He recalled that one military agency, for example, avoided major data losses during the Pentagon attack because its computer systems had "double backup" capabilities. "Their critical data was all contained in a facility in another state, and that [facility] was backed up by another facility in a different state," Raduege said.

But he said officials in another Pentagon organization had stored "everything they had" on only one system that was destroyed in the attack. "They lost every bit of that data," he said.

The nation's intelligence agencies have made progress in preventing those types of data losses, according to Allan Wade, chief information officer for the CIA and the U.S. Intelligence Community.

"In modernizing our information technology infrastructure, we've been able to do this very economically," Wade said. "We can provide a relatively inexpensive backup system that we can use for testing or trying new concepts and then switch it into the infrastructure in the event that it's needed."

But Coxe, whose agency became part of the Homeland Security Department two months ago, said counterterrorism and emergency management officials are facing many other technology-related challenges.

"This is no small organization to try to get your arms around," he said of the department. "Success depends on an integrated approach of business processes, development interoperability standards and a solid approach to data management and information technology."

Coxe said Homeland Security officials are developing an "e-business backbone" to facilitate the dissemination of counterterrorism information to federal, state, local and private-sector officials.

"It must be capable of providing timely, accurate, relevant and comprehensive assessments and predictions of all types of threats ... as well as vulnerabilities of our critical infrastructures to attack," he said. "The department's information technology, the data management and the knowledge-management infrastructures do not support these requirements today."