In-Depth

How Microsoft Partners Helped Customers Rebound After 2017 Storms

As monster hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Harvey struck this summer and fall, Microsoft partners prepped their customers, helped them keep businesses running or emergency operations going, and continue to support them in the storms' aftermath.

From the Gulf Coast of Texas through Florida and on down to Puerto Rico, the 2017 hurricane season was harrowing. Businesses in the crosshairs of the storms looked to their partners to reduce the impact, protecting valuable data and preparing for business continuity. Partners take that responsibility very seriously. They strive to provide the best advice possible for each customer. But nature has a way of throwing curves no one could anticipate, and the 2017 hurricane season put partners to the test on an unexpected scale.

Partner Sanctuary Keeps Critical Functions Running
In the days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the Rock Solid Technologies employees didn't have the most basic necessities of life, including water, food and electricity -- which made opening the company offices especially critical. The infrastructure of the island was destroyed and the office was about to become a sanctuary, as well as a crucial factor in the island's rebuilding efforts.

"We opened our office on Sept. 25, five days after the hurricane. We were up and running so people had a place to come to get some air conditioning and start doing what they needed to do for our customers. And our customers on that day, the following day, and still to this day are coming to our office to run payroll, to run purchasing, to make payments, to do everything," Ángel L. Pérez, vice president of Rock Solid, said in an interview a month after the storm. "I'm very proud of my team and what we were able to do with such little time."

Rock Solid serves a number of verticals, including municipalities, medical supply distributors and petroleum distributors, that were essential to getting people back to work and supporting recovery efforts. With Microsoft gold competencies in Dynamics and cloud, Rock Solid supports ERP, productivity and operational systems for their clients -- from payroll to vendor payments.

"We created a little bit of a filter with regard to who we are going to get in touch with first and who is going to be the most affected by the storm."

Santiago R. Morales, Partner, Pangea Group

"Our customers include many municipalities that lost their buildings. If we don't do payroll, imagine the thousands and thousands and thousands of people who will not get a check to just survive. We told them, 'Come to the office, we'll help you, we'll do whatever we need to do to make sure that you can keep running your business even though you don't have a building, even though you don't have computers, you don't have anything,'" said Pérez. "Some of them only have their clothes on their backs, yet they come in. They are great public servants just trying to get the rest of the people in their organizations paid, and that's awesome."

More than 500 municipal employees from 34 municipalities have been able to carry out their work from the Rock Solid San Juan headquarters. As a result, by mid-October, more than 20,000 municipal employees received their payroll checks, representing payments of more than $9 million, and another 4,000 contractors were paid more than $5 million in on-time payments for purchases of essentials like water, propane and debris collection.

Of course, the cloud was the key component enabling Rock Solid to get its customers working so quickly. When Microsoft first asked partners to adopt the cloud, Rock Solid management recognized the opportunity and jumped in. "We took our Dynamics product and put it in the cloud. We told our clients that we are not going to sell products on-site anymore, so if you want to buy from us, you have to buy from our cloud offering, and it's going to be a lot less money up front," said Pérez. "Most of them did, and we started switching them, switching them, switching them. And the new ones, we didn't even offer an option. And our customers now are 98 percent cloud customers."

The commitment to the cloud served its customers well in the aftermath of the storm. Both public and private sector customers who lost their facilities have been able to go to the Rock Solid office and get back online. "We have everything working, not in the optimal kind of way, but everything is kind of normal," said Pérez. "Personally there is nothing normal on this island anymore. The majority of our employees don't have power, they don't have cell, they don't have water at home, which makes it challenging to say the least."

While the 115 employees in the Rock Solid headquarters in San Juan have been dealing with intense personal pressures, the crisis has brought them closer as teammates. Employees who were lucky enough to have a generator brought ice into the office to share. While schools and childcare facilities were closed, workers brought their children with them.

"Simple things like that become really important and it's great how people are getting even closer together. We have a great team but now I can say we have an even greater team because of all the unselfish acts that have flourished on their own," said Pérez. "It's not like we're asking people to do it. No, it's happening on its own, and it's really, really good."

Preparation Rules in Hurricane Irma
For Florida businesses, the days before Hurricane Irma made landfall on Sept. 10 were filled with uncertainty as forecasters struggled to predict the path of the storm. Reaching out to clients at risk, the Miami-based Pangea Group team sent e-mails to clients with recommendations and the invitation to call with questions. Then they started calling clients -- which include a broad mix of businesses using on-premises Dynamics, Dynamics 365 and Office 365 -- prioritizing based on risk factors.

"We created a little bit of a filter with regard to who we are going to get in touch with first and who is going to be the most affected by the storm," said Santiago R. Morales, partner at Pangea Group. "And mainly the ones that are impacted have multiple locations. If you have more than one location outside of the storm path, and your data is located in the storm path, then you've got a serious issue. The potential impact was huge to their business, so those guys really needed a lot of assistance. Working with those customers was all hands on deck -- it was everyone from IT, from finance -- they needed to make big decisions to get people out of here."

For those clients with multiple locations, Pangea helped them plan out the best strategy to keep operations running through the storm. "One of our clients has five locations, one in Hawaii. That client went and bought a generator. They actually were pretty lucky in [that] they were only out three days," said Morales. "But they bought a generator and they were able to keep their operations running. Because the other locations were selling, and now those locations were retail with point of sale. So they couldn't go down. You know, you can't just write an invoice for someone coming into your store."

"We told them, 'Come to the office, we'll help you, we'll do whatever we need to do to make sure that you can keep running your business even though you don't have a building, even though you don't have computers, you don't have anything.'"

-- Ángel L. Pérez, Vice President, Rock Solid Technologies

Even for those clients with single locations, the Pangea Group team talked to them about backups. Clients often hadn't considered that both their production systems and backups were being managed in Florida datacenters. "So if you're a local shop and you've lost power, that's OK because no one else is working," said Morales. "We worked with clients to make them realize, look, you should not have backups in the same location as your primary data. You should at least move it off somewhere. So then we started working with some third parties, like backup.com, as a stop gap to move their backups off-site so should anything happen to these locations they'd be fine."

Fortunately for Pangea Group's clients, the effects from the storm were generally limited to a couple of days without power. When the storm passed, Pangea Group employees were busy with support. "The first two to three days, our team was basically ensuring all the connections were valid, the systems were up and running," said Morales. "We had some issues with some terminal servers, very light stuff, luckily. The ones that had servers at locations, luckily nothing happened simply because the storm wasn't that bad here."

Storms Impact Partner Businesses, Too
While Hurricane Irma created less havoc for Pangea Group customers than anticipated, the process highlighted the importance of client diversification for partners. "Eighty percent of our business comes from 20 percent of our clients, and they are located here in South Florida," said Morales. "What I did learn, and this is valid for all partners that might be in a storm path or in a disaster zone, is you really need to have clients outside of that area. Because we basically lost two weeks' worth of billable work with those clients here. The first week no one was working, everyone was preparing for the storm. The second week it was very light. We're now making a conscious effort to find more clients outside, a little further north, so that should anything happen like this we don't take a hit in terms of billing at the end of the day."

In the days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Rockport, Texas, on Aug. 26, NetWorthy Systems had also prioritized clients to ensure focus and proper allocation of resources should the need arise. Serving approximately 600 endpoints in Beaumont, Texas, and the surrounding area, the managed services provider (MSP) was familiar with the power outages that accompany hurricanes.

"We proactively helped the clients," said Tim Beard, CEO of NetWorthy Systems. "We sort of prioritized, particularly focusing on the local government clients who would need to react during the storm. One in particular was an agency responsible for drainage in the entire three-county area. They are the source for people, including radio and television, tracking water levels through an extensive network of gauges and rain sensors. All that data is sent into the servers tracking where the flooding is occurring. They stayed up and running the whole time."

[Click on image for larger view.] At the offices of Rock Solid Technologies in San Juan, Puerto Rico, more than 500 employees of the Microsoft partner's 34 municipality customers carried out operations that kept vital paychecks flowing in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Most of the NetWorthy Systems clients are still predominantly on-premises with some cloud functions, so pre-planning entailed mostly backup and recovery. The Office 365 and other cloud-based clients were set. But no one was prepared for the catastrophic flooding as Harvey meandered up the Texas Gulf Coast, dropping more than 40 inches of rain in many areas, including Beaumont.

As the storm unfolded, the value of the cloud to its own business continuity became increasingly apparent to NetWorthy Systems. The extreme flooding in Beaumont and East Texas closed Interstate 10 for days, keeping employees trapped at home.

"Several team members were stuck in place and couldn't travel. Another had to evacuate as the water rose, and my entire neighborhood was flooded with five feet of water," said Beard. "I had to move my family into the office for the first week."

For the owner to be so distracted after a disaster could kill some businesses. But Beard, whose family is getting by with a FEMA-supplied trailer while they rebuild, feels fortunate. "It's very difficult, because I have had to spend an extraordinary amount of time out of the office. But I have great staff who have stepped up to run it without me."

After the storm, Beard finds himself more sold on the concept of the cloud than ever. "We hadn't really considered the benefit of the cloud for our own business. We were ready to support our customers, and the cloud supported us," said Beard. "The main lesson we got out of this was that by moving all services to the cloud there was less risk for our clients, and it gave us the flexibility to respond to the unexpected."

The 2017 hurricane season will go on record as one of the most active in history. While the physical damage, particularly in Puerto Rico, was tremendous, the business impacts were clearly mitigated by the cloud. The promises of the cloud to protect data and help companies recover quickly were realized for the most part -- delivering even more than expected for some partners. Beyond data recovery, partner experiences through the storms reflect that relationships with both customers and employees extend beyond pure business challenges to a deeper, personal level. When the chips are down, or the water is up, partners will always rise to the occasion.