July 31, 2007 12:48 PM   Subscribe

I remember someone telling me that the US government has an agreement with Wal-Mart to be able use their computer network in the case of a major catastrophe. Is that true? Any source you can cite?
posted by Hugh2d2 to Law & Government (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My first though is that it smacks of urban legend. Use their computer network for what, exactly? Compared to, say, the US military, I can't imagine Wal-mart is any better.

However, after searching I found this, which suggests that Wal-mart's world-leading inventory control system was helpful in moving goods into areas hit by Katrina. Moreover, "Wal-Mart's efficient supply chain and logistics network were durable enough to take the hit and keep on operating. While local and federal groups suffered communications problems and bickered over who was in charge, Wal-Mart sprang into action."
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:06 PM on July 31, 2007

I can't imagine that a computer network per se would matter (telecom companies own better networks), but the shipping infrastructure and dispatching/tracking software would be much more practical to control/emulate/use.

WalMart was much more coordinated and nimble in delivering essential goods after Katrina.

During a tearful interview on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Aaron F. Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish in the New Orleans suburbs, told host Tim Russert that if "the American government would have responded like Wal-Mart has responded, we wouldn't be in this crisis."

They're really good with trucks.

On preview: what percussivepaul said.
posted by cowbellemoo at 1:11 PM on July 31, 2007

Arguably, Target's distribution system is better and takes less manpower to operate than Wal-Mart's, but they have fewer distribution centers.

posted by SpecialK at 1:48 PM on July 31, 2007

Still on this tanget, the Chronicle reports that Texas plans to work directly with Wal-Mart, HEB, Home Depot and others when the next big disaster hits. Better than waiting for FEMA to coordinate things. Having said that, it doesn't address your question about using their computer network.
posted by Robert Angelo at 2:55 PM on July 31, 2007

tanget = tangent
posted by Robert Angelo at 2:57 PM on July 31, 2007

It is crazy to think that every Walmart store and warehouse is spoked back to a central datacenter via actual circuits. If any measure of their network relies upon VPN tunneling through last mile providers, you lose all control.
posted by machaus at 3:42 PM on July 31, 2007

I think this story is pure urban legend. I knew someone who worked for Digital Equipment Corporation in the 90s and the sheer secrecy regarding their data centres amazed me. I doubt that the US military would turn to non-military systems providers for use in a disaster, especially where those data centres or even access points are big and visible. That being said, use of resources and logistics would probably make sense.
posted by acoutu at 4:21 PM on July 31, 2007

I remember someone telling me that the US government has an agreement with Wal-Mart to be able use their computer network in the case of a major catastrophe.

Sure they do, but the consulting contract to convert it for government use is where the real money is.

Actually, I'm not joking much. The FAA famously spent a $billion or so and over 10 years developing a new version of its existing computer network that didn't work and had to be scrapped. It isn't easy to get your stuff working on unfamiliar equipment even when you have complete control and unlimited time and money.

Say best-case scenario is turning Wal-Mart into the FEMA food-and-water delivery boys for a vast swathe of the country. You still have a computer system that's been programmed for SKUs and loading docks and ships and rail transfer points. Just switching all of that out to work for essential goods that might be coming from anywhere is going to be a nightmare. I don't doubt it could be done, but getting it working could take almost as long as the disaster.

Now, machaus presents one potential alternative. Wal-Mart has a network, not just the computers that are connected to it. It probably can handle data and voice and has capacity comparable to any USG system in place. I wouldn't think it impossible that there's some sort of potential agreement to use the bandwidth itself for communications, as an alternate backbone.
posted by dhartung at 10:26 PM on July 31, 2007

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