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Disaster Strikes Pennsylvania: A Very Special AT&T Doomsday Simulation

Today and tomorrow, AT&T will simulate a full-scale network disaster outside of Philly.

King of Prussia, PA

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It began a day like any other in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania (population 18,000, its name derived from a local tavern). Then, suddenly, one sleepy October morning in the year 2010, disaster struck. And no one could tweet it, blog it, or Facebook it. The network was dead.

This, at least, is the scenario that will play out Tuesday and Wednesday of this week in the town not far from Philadelphia, where AT&T will be conducting a full-scale disaster recovery simulation. Flood zones have their disaster simulations, and cities that could fall victim to terrorists have them, too. In an increasingly networked world, AT&T has been conducting simulations of its own for years focusing on what would happen in the event its communications network went down. This time, it’s about to take place in King of Prussia, PA.

What does a network disaster simulation look like? Kevan Parker, Operations Manager for AT&T’s Network Disaster Recovery team, has worked on about 16 of them, and spoke to Fast Company about what they’re like. The exercises involve taking about 26 pieces of equipment, some in trailers, some in containers, to plug gaps in the network.

If that sounds undramatic, consider that the team has for years challenged itself by tackling what it calls the “smoking hole scenario.” It’s a phrase that’s been in parlance for over a decade: “The original intention of the Network Disaster Recovery simulations was to be able to recover a central office that was a smoking hole…you don’t go in and replace a couple of pieces in the central office. The central office is gone,” says Parker. Nobody foresaw the events of 9/11 when the term first came into use, says Parker–but then, on that date, the smoking hole scenario came true, since AT&T had an office in the World Trade Center. A team set up camp across the river and restored the functionality of the lost office within 53 hours.

In recent years, says Parker, NDR exercises have an increasing focus on wireless networks. And though in our increasingly networked world, it would be safe to assume the NDR exercises become ever more complicated, they have been made simpler on at least one count. Technological R&D has led to shrinking device sizes, meaning that what used to take two to three tractor trailers to ship in now can be handled with just one.

[Top image: Flickr user thisisbossi]

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

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