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Monster snow: How Buffalo-area businesses kept things going in the storm

Nov 25, 20146 mins
Business ContinuityDisaster Recovery

The recent massive storm in Buffalo meant just another day at the office - or actually at home - for many area employees. That's because storm-hearty Northerners say their systems are ready for whatever Mother Nature throws at them

Snow storm
Credit: REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Despite the warnings of heavy snow, David Thiemecke’s company Algonquin Studios was involved with an event last week to talk about the growth of hacking. With a party-like atmosphere, which included a dee-jay playing music while techies networked over hors d’oeuvres and beer, the snow hit Buffalo just as the event began.

But to many who have lived in Buffalo and the surrounding areas for many years, this was just another snowstorm and they would make it home fine. However with less than half the talk still to go, participants started to get the feeling that this was not your normal, ordinary storm. By 7 p.m. more than half the crowd headed home.

“We’ve all been through this before, and it just creates this sober excitement. Out the panoramic windows you could see snow blowing across Lafayette Square out front. Still, no one complained, and when I left with my wife after turning out the lights, there was about two inches of snow on the ground. The plowing and salt regime hadn’t really begun yet; while two inches is almost never a problem, it made driving slippery,” said Thiemecke, who is co-founder and vice president of the technology consulting company.

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The storm turned out to be a monster for Buffalo by dumping more than 7 feet of snow on the city. The three-day storm resulted in 13 dead and now the flood watches are in effect as rain has head in and the temperature has risen.

“Welcome to Buffalo. We get some snow and we handle it. It has caused some very unfortunate deaths and building damage, but in comparison to what emergency weather other parts of the country deals with… Buffalo knows how to take care of its snow by banding together and supporting each other as one region,” said Joel Colombo, president of 360 PSG, which builds custom websites and web software for small businesses.

It’s an awful lot for a community, let alone a company to endure. As the storm stretched for days, it became another day at the office sort of speak for the people at Algonquin Studios. Meaning Thiemecke and his fellow 27 workers have a plan set out ahead of time that allows them to still be productive while working at home.

Aside from the regular snow shoveling, Thiemecke said his workers haven’t missed a beat.

“The storm really was a knife, with less than 5 inches falling north of a line about a block from our offices, and up to 7 feet falling less than a half mile south of us. One senior executive lives in the snowbelt, and saw his street disappear under 73 inches of snow from Tuesday to Sunday. He ran out of coffee and his neighbors ferried supplies from house to house on sleds,” he said. “By 6:30 a.m. each business day, we’d notified all staff that we closed the office. Regardless of the amount of snow outside, it’s important to have everyone work from home and put no greater demand on community safety services.”

David Thiemecke, co-founder of Algonquin Studios

He said Algonquin’s network suffered no downtime caused by the storm. Any issues could be remedied remotely. The fiber ring remained undisturbed. The Web consulting company also has moved most of its operations to the cloud to further secure its data.

“We would use those services as our backup data center for quickly moving virtual machines, and have previously planned for the process to migrate what few production services remain in-house. We can also move our development and test platforms if necessary. However, this storm demanded no such moves. Between our VPN access and services already migrated to the cloud, most people could reach their full environment from home even without prior notice. That includes our support teams,” Thiemecke said.

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The lucky part for Algonquin is that the building was on the extreme northern boundary of the storm. It snowed less than 5 inches there. While only a half mile south is where the snow line ran, slamming that area with the 7 feet of snow. By missing the snowline, the building itself saw no damage. This was fortunate especially when many homes saw roofs collapse under the weight of the snow that was made even heavier with rain. The building was reopened on Friday, he said.

Staying home

Colombo has all of his client systems in the cloud, with only secondary backups in 360 PSG’s Amherst office (a suburb of Buffalo). All production work is in virtual data centers in Dallas and New Jersey.

Many of the 19 employees of that office determined quite quickly that they weren’t going to make it into the office once the snow started to pile up overnight.

Just like Algonquin’s office, it was not hit hard by the storm but the main issue was the employees’ inability to get to the office from their snowbound homes.

“We were lucky in that we were able to communicate with all our people before they even attempted to leave their homes. The stories we had were simply that they were literally buried under the snow, impossible to get in their vehicles (or even see them) in their driveways,” Colombo said.

His team uses the driving bans as a gauge to tell employees to stay at home instead of venturing into the office. To inform employees not to come into the office, his team uses either social media, a company wide email or an online wiki.

Knowing what kind of punch a Buffalo storm can bring, Colombo is quite flexible when it comes to letting employees leave early when a storm first hits.

“Our culture and our team are most important to us here and it makes no sense to push through the “hours of the day” and risk anyone’s safety,” he said.

The company will take a financial hit though from the storm. Colombo said about 60% of 360 PSG’s clients are within a 50-mile radius of the center of Buffalo, putting about half its current customers and new sales prospects right in the middle of the storm. Its sales for November will be down almost 60% over last year purely based on the fact that they lost communication on deals and business that should have been closing during the entire week, he said.