Disaster Centres and ASPs

Copyright: David Lawson - published in Property Week Sept 2005

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Fortunes were made in the dotcom boom from an obscure ability to read manholes. Now a similar fate awaits those who grasp the significance of fibre latency.  This has nothing to do with street design or the digestive benefits of fruit and cereals, but an appreciation of the way the wealthiest businesses in history depend on hidden networks of cables beneath our cities. Financial groups shift vast amounts of information between computers every second, so they pick offices along main underground ducts. For security reasons, only cable companies knew where these were in the last boom, so developers called on a select group who pounded the streets composing maps from names on inspection covers. Today, they would rely on cars rather than than shoeleather.

   The World Trade Centre disaster scared financial regulators witless about how the City and Canary Wharf could be paralysed – a threat emphasised by recent terrorist attacks on London. Financial groups were ordered to create backup centres.  Many already had space in Docklands but this is too close to potential flashpoints. It can also be unsuitable for a today’s computer servers, which demand vastly more power according to Andrew Jay, who specialises in technology for CBRE Richard Ellis. So the big banks have been looking further afield. They can’t go too far, however, as signals along cables degrade over distance – a phenomenon called fibre latency. That gives a maximum of around 40km – which coincides around London with the M25. This time around, cable hunters have been whizzing around the motorway spotting likely sites.

     It could be a rewarding job. ‘All the big banks are looking to buy sites,’ says Jay, who estimates demand for data centres is running at  500,000 sq ft. But investors have been slow to respond.  That is understandable when data centre operators like Global Switch proved an embarrassment to big name shareholders such as Chelsfield when demand collapsed. Yet Andy Ruhan, who set up the firm then sold out, has been buying back into data centres in the US and Europe.

  In the UK he set up a new business called Sentrum and created the first speculative centre to serve this new potential boom on a site in Camberley bought from Nokia for a reputed £20m. It typifies what City firms are seeking – well located but unglamorous.  The location falls within the key 40km circle but access to the M25 also means staff can be brought in easily if necessary. The whole of central London could be locked down in a major alert.

  Banks are looking mainly at warehouses rather than glossy office blocks, mainly in the 100,000-2000 sq ft range. That is big enough for both data storage and the duplicate offices required for disaster recovery demanded by regulators.  But sellers can’t expect the frenetic demand seen last time around, says Jay, who has done three deals over the last year.  ‘There aren’t the same time constraints on banks and they will not pay silly prices,’ he says.

    Sentrum has allocated 75,000 sq ft for data storage and 80,000 sq ft dedicated to disaster recovery. This is probably aimed at smaller financial firms which face the same strict rules as the giants but need less space. Ruhan has already pre-let 10,000 sq ft and CBRE is reported to be in talks for up to half the development.


The big names in property software were well aware of dangers faced by their customers long before terrorists began pounding London and have come up with solutions for ensuring vital data is both secure and easily available.. It doesn’t require a bomb to destroy a business. A small fire or even a power failure can do the job. A blown database or even a few days locked out of an office can be a killer blow.

   Insurance giant AXA, which has to pay to clean up the mess says 46 percent of UK businesses do not have a plan for what to do in such a crisis, despite the fact that 17 percent have been hit by a disaster at some time.  So industry leaders like Raindrop, Trace, Intuit and Yardi have devised disaster recover systems running at their own data centres. Raindrop, supplier of the Manhattan suite of property, asset and facilities management software, offers to take a daily backup of clients’ systems which can be quickly restored in a crisis.  ‘The system is fully managed and backed up for the duration of the emergency - including firewall protection,’ says information systems European sales manager Jason Allaway.

  Critically, everything is accessible via the internet, so staff can relocate to serviced offices or even work from home. ‘We provide sufficient bandwidth to enable remote access for as many staff as required - from wherever they are temporarily located. This procedure is established, tested and fully documented,’ says Allaway.  The service, called FlexASP, is tailored to the components each organisation wants to include includes one test, or a real recovery, a year in the annual cost. They can choose to run Manhattan on Raindrop’s computers all the time.  This kind of approach, called application service provision (ASP), is becoming increasingly common as firms outsource software to suppliers.


 Businesses are increasingly outsourcing activities to specialists which run everything from email to databases from data centres. This alleviates fears about losing information in case of disaster and saves firms paying for their own technical support.  It can cause problems, however, as fairly routine tasks such as printing a brochure requires so much information it can choke even a hefty broadband connection and crash a network. . Aspasia has overcome that by writing software designed for working via the internet. Large reports are created on its servers and accessed via the internet, so processing is no slower than opening a web page.  

  The program, which runs on market-leader Oracle’s software,  brings together traditional databases into one integrated system, giving a single point of reference covering sales, lettings, property maintenance, financial services and surveying. Benefits include:

  As a web-based system, it offers almost unlimited storage capacity and live data. Information is accessible not just across multiple offices but anywhere in the world via a computer at any time.  Automatic backups dispel the threat of data loss while remote maintenance saves the cost of an in-house IT team or the steep charges for calling in emergency service.  Access can also be provided for clients. Investors can check their portfolio in real time rather than waiting for reports. Home owners also welcome the ability to check progress on sales.  Professionals can use the system for keeping tabs on the performance of their own companies, as Aspasia says is the only web based software solution on the market offering both front and back office services.