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Disaster Recovery: Protecting Campus Data Against the Inevitable

South Carolina's Coastal Carolina University uses technology to steel its IT infrastructure against weather emergencies.

The people at Coastal Carolina University know a thing or two about the need for solid disaster planning. Situated just minutes from Myrtle Beach, SC, the institutions pays close attention to hurricane warnings and other natural occurrences that could disrupt its operations.

It's no wonder really, seeing that Myrtle Beach is either "brushed" or hit by a hurricane (including Hazel, Hugo, Charley, and Bonnie, to name just a handful) every 3.31 years. Statistically speaking, the region should be affected next before the end of 2012.

Should that statistic prove accurate, Bob Full, systems administrator, will be able to rest easy in at least one area. That's because the school implemented a disk drive backup system a few years ago, and has since upgraded it. Now, the institution is looking to advance its backup system even further.

Developed by Unitrends, the backup system encompasses various appliances that protect the institution's entire IT infrastructure. At the heart of the system is an on-site data protection unit (DPU), which allows the university to protect local data (files, folders, and all user data) on its own servers, desktops, and laptops.

Previously, the school used multiple tape backup systems that weren't compatible between its various operating systems. "We really needed to be able to use the backup system across all of our platforms," said Full, who, along with his IT team, visited the vendor's factory for a live demonstration of the backup system before making his selection. He said no longer having to deal with tape drives was a big incentive to upgrade.

"Our original system was brutal to manage," said Full. "We knew there had to be a better way to handle it."

The disk drive backup system allows Coastal Carolina University to protect all of its data, and then store that data in a safe place for future restoration, if necessary. All equipment on campus is backed up, said Full, as is the university's Web site infrastructure and other critical data.

The institution, which uses Datatel's Enterprise Education Platform for its student information management system, can also back up that system's data, store it, and quickly restore it when needed. Being in an area that's prone to weather-related damage, Coastal Carolina University also "mirrors" its data between its physical facilities, "just in case we ever lose one of those buildings during a storm," said Full.

The offsite storage system works well for the school, whose typical weather-related threats are "slow moving" and aren't likely to hit without warning, according to Full. "We usually have plenty of notice, and ample time to backup the DPU, get it onto a tape and take it offsite and/or put it on our servers."

The university has only had to deal with two hurricanes in the last 10 years. Both times, Full said, he delivered the disk drive backups to a remote location about 56 miles inland. During the storm, and with all freshmen and sophomores (who have to live on campus) evacuated, he said the school's IT department was able to feed information to parents and other concerned individuals through the university Web site, which can be updated remotely during such emergencies.

The backup system also comes in handy for accidental data loss, which has been "known to happen here," said Full. "While we haven't lost any equipment due to hurricanes, we have been known to accidentally clean out data," he explained. "Using a disk drive backup system, we can restore everything much faster (minutes, versus hours) and we don't have to run around looking through tapes to find what we need."

Full, whose IT wish list right now includes more IBM equipment to support the school's growing student information management system, said he'd like to move over to a vaulted backup setup in the future. The more advanced backup arrangement would allow for offsite backup without the need for physically relocation of disks and/or tapes. The offsite backup device is then used to restore the DPU, which is located on the college's campus.

"We're looking very hard at moving over to vaulting," said Full, who is currently reviewing options from a handful of technology vendors. He said that while the idea of buying "drawers and drawers of space to store the university's data in a safe location offsite" is enticing, there are some issues that must be resolved before the institution can move in that direction.

"If we vault and store the information in a digital format, it will never degrade, but the setup does start to run into a little bit of money," said Full, whose biggest concern is the security of the information being transmitted between the university's servers and the offsite storage device.

"We're a small university, so not only does the cost have to be justified, but the data has to be secure," said Full. "We want to make sure that if anyone did get a hold of the information, that they wouldn't be able to see it or use it."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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