More than 3,000 bank ATMs along the East Coast were temporarily unable to dispense cash last Thursday because of failures at an Electronic Data Systems Corp. processing center in New Jersey.

The outages during a prime-time period-11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.-affected less than a third of the 13,000 ATMs that EDS operates nationwide.

EDS said it was the victim of a double failure at the Rochelle Park, N.J., data center. First, a connection between two Tandem computers, the industry-standard processors of ATM transactions, failed. Support software to back up the Tandem connection also failed.

"That kind of thing shouldn't happen," said Michael Harris, senior vice president at Speer & Associates, an Atlanta-based consulting firm. Though some external telecommunications links can be difficult to back up, he said, links between machines operating on site "are relatively easy to make redundant.

"They didn't get all the holes plugged," he said. "That's surprising."

EDS' contingency plan calls for transferring all processing to data centers in Lombard, Ill., and Bellevue, Wash., said Ken Capps, spokesman for EDS' electronic business unit. "The system was not down long enough to make the switch."

This is not the first ATM mishap at EDS. In March 1993, more than 5,500 EDS-operated machines were out of commission for up to three days because of severe damage to a computer facility in Clifton, N.J. Snow from a blizzard caused the roof to cave in.

"You would think they would take very good care with disaster recovery after that," said Liam Carmody, president of Carmody & Bloom, Ridgewood, N.J.

EDS processes 130 million ATM transactions a month. "Typically, the ATMs are available 98% to 99% of the time," Mr. Capps said.

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