Amid the sprawl of government contractors that ring Washington, D.C. lies an IBM facility that acts as a backup site for many of the nation's largest financial institutions. Not two weeks ago, I toured the facility during a media event arranged by Visa USA, which was showcasing its annual capacity-planning testing process in preparation for the holiday season.
The highlight of the tour was the data center, a 105,000 square-foot hardened shell filled with processors and storage. Off to one side is a telecommunications room, containing what looks like a giant ventilation shaft coming through the wall, but which is in fact an ultra-high bandwidth pipeline connecting the banks to the IBM data center which, in the event of a disaster, would continue to process mortgage payments and credit-card transactions on up to to multibillion-dollar foreign exchange and interbank settlements, without so much as a hiccup.
Other than its size, what struck me about the room was its solitude; not a person was present. When I asked our tour guide why, he said, "We don't want anyone in here." He said he'd had a deuce of a time persuading IBM to grant us clearance.
I was lucky; if the visit had been scheduled this week, it almost certainly would have been canceled. Over the weekend, the Department of Homeland Security issued a terror alert raising the threat level for financial institutions in New York, New Jersey, and Washington.
While the financial-services industry has tried to strike a "business as usual" posture, my hunch is that the data center, still quiet as ever, is humming with activity as banks test their emergency backup plans, for if ever an occasion warranted it, this is it. I've asked IBM if this is the case; it declined to comment. But it's a safe bet that the telecom pipe that connects into the sinews of American finance is bulging with information this week, if only as an exercise.