Cloud Computing | Feature

How Cloud Backup Can Save IT Big Bucks

Moving your data storage, backup, and disaster recovery to the cloud can cut costs and improve functionality for both end users and tech personnel.

Still squeamish about putting your files on the internet? You're not alone. Even as educators turn to the cloud for productivity apps, graphics programs, and content-management systems, the majority of schools continue to keep their data on-site. But it may be time to reconsider that approach: The cloud can be just as useful and cost-effective for storage, backup, and disaster recovery. Equally important, quality cloud providers actually offer enhanced security compared with on-site solutions.

The cloud also has a leg up on local storage when it comes to the management of data. Even small schools generate terabytes of data per year, and users in every academic field are demanding greater control over their own files. Furthermore, as students and faculty transition from desktops to mobile, it's becoming increasingly difficult to coordinate backups and rescue lost data. In fact, some IT departments spend more time on file-fetching than on actual business development. It's fair to say that most colleges and universities could benefit from more centralized, easy-access solutions for backup and recovery. Here are a few ways the cloud can help.

1) Better Organization, Easier Access
Considering the trend toward mobile, the rise of big data, and the digitization of educational content, IT's role isn't what it used to be. "We've had a consumerization of the enterprise," said Tim Winningham, IT systems manager at The Ohio State University. "There's more and more telecommuting, users are getting their own computers, and people are running their own systems." With massive amounts of data now being stored in disparate locations, central backup becomes something of a necessity. At the same time, users must also be free to access and change that data at their discretion.

To empower end users and lighten his staff's workload, Winningham replaced OSU's traditional file server setup with a private, off-site cloud and endpoint software called CrashPlan PROe. Researchers and grad students can now use their personal laptops worry-free, since all their data is synchronously routed to OSU's private cloud. They don't have to go through IT to update their backups, and they're free to organize their data as they see fit.

The CrashPlan implementation has effectively centralized storage while decentralizing control--a big improvement in both security and ease of use. "Before CrashPlan, I hated life," joked Winningham. "You never knew what files were called, never knew the last time you saved, and I'd have to go through and hunt for every file. Now we've given power back to the end user."

As disorganized as student and faculty files can become, on-site storage is even more of a mess for university marketers. Their images, videos, and other collateral take up gobs of space, and files must be available to their audiences quickly. "When we were hosting our own servers on-site, we had major headaches coordinating support and maintenance through the university's IT department," said Corey Chimko, digital resources coordinator for the photography department at Cornell University (NY). "The communication and approval triangle between us, Cornell IT, and the vendor was a nightmare."

Cornell eliminated that triangle by partnering with Widen Enterprises, a digital asset manager (DAM) that uses the Amazon Web Services cloud. With all of their collateral now in a central location, the school's marketers can directly consult with Widen personnel to find, resize, and repurpose their files. Provisioning has also become quick and easy. "The security and SAML integrations allow self-directed user registration, automatic permissions assignment, and on-site learning and support tools," said Chimko. "We've empowered the self-motivated user and freed up time for us admins."

But how do you centralize storage when you're still using public and private servers? It's a scenario with which most schools are familiar: They want to retain certain sensitive data on-site, even as different university departments might be using an array of cloud providers. Cloud data broker Storage Made Easy provides a solution. With a combined hardware and software-as-a-service (SaaS) system, it adapts multiple providers' protocols to a central hub. "Schools might use an active directory, DropBox, SkyDrive and Google Drive all at once," said Jim Liddle, CEO of Storage Made Easy. "We can provide FTP access into all those clouds, even if the clouds don't support it."

2) Secure, Reliable Storage
Cloud computing still has an ethereal feel for many users, making the idea of entrusting student info, research, and digital assets to out-of-sight servers seem risky. The data has to reside somewhere, though, and off-site may well be the safest place. "People worry too much about their files being 'on the internet,' said Widen CEO Matthew Gonnering. "If you think the environment you've got on your campus is more secure than Amazon's--the biggest online retailer in the world--that's quite a feat!" Whereas most university IT departments are already stretched thin, third-party providers can dedicate entire teams to backup and encryption.

Centralization itself--whether in the cloud or on-site--can also patch holes by streamlining provisioning and restrictions. "Asset security shouldn't be about lock-down; it should be about appropriate access," said Lee Stadler, marketing director at Ottawa University (KS) and a Widen customer. "We now have a globally accessible asset hub that can repurpose dozens of asset formats on the fly. This used to require not only access to the local servers but access to a variety of software and systems that could run them." If you use the cloud for certain applications but rely on on-site servers to hold the data required by those apps, you probably face similar security risks.

Is the cloud the only place to consolidate your assets and enable single sign-on? No, but it certainly seems to be the most cost-effective. At Maryville University (MO), for example, the IT department used to coordinate a variety of on-site servers from different vendors, and it spent a great deal of time keeping its virtual private network (VPN) up and running. "To change that, we started by looking at upgrading the equipment on-site to be all the same vendor," said David Brawner, manager of network dervices. "The costs would have been significant." In the end, dinCloud's NetApp-based cloud storage proved far simpler, cheaper, and more secure.

3) Savings Across the Board
Even if you decide to stick with your current backup solution, evaluating a cloud solution forces you to focus more closely on the costs involved, whether on-site or in the cloud—and the results can be eye-opening. "In-house, you physically have the data near you, so you tend not to think about how you back up, when you back up, and security as much as you do when you start to think about the cloud," said Liddle. Once you do consider the on-site requirements for improving both security and ease of access, the cloud's economies of scale will probably win out.

The greatest savings occur over the long term, because IT departments are able to avoid the costs of new servers, new space, and maintenance. "With a traditional file-sharing business with very expensive hard drives, high reliability, and redundancy, we're talking well over $100,000 per year," estimated Winningham. Chimko agreed, noting that "the move to a cloud-based DAM solution slightly decreased our monthly transfer and storage costs, while effectively eliminating many of the daunting long-term costs such as server maintenance and replacement." Given the upward trend in storage needs, it makes sense to capitalize on the cloud's scalability.

Third-party storage solutions also free up time for swamped IT personnel. "We have saved countless man-hours in terms of both photo research and application support," said Chimko. With Widen's team managing their materials, Cornell administrators are now free to focus on system accuracy and functionality. But you don't have to hire a digital asset team to reap these kinds of benefits: Savings will accrue simply by avoiding the complications associated with on-site storage. "Maryville has a very small network services staff, so even a few hours per week to manage a VPN connection is a considerable workload," noted Brawner. "We needed to save time."

Faced with financial constraints and growing student bodies, more and more schools are likely to adopt off-site data management in the long run. Given the popularity of mobile tech and distance learning, the exponential growth of data, and the consumerization of computing, universities need the ability to provide access not just to on-campus users but to stakeholders across the globe. "The question I continually ask regarding cost-savings or general ROI is, 'Can we afford not to do this and still expect the institution to grow?'" concluded Stadler. "The answer is no."

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