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Planning for Disaster, Some Schools Seek Safety in the Cloud

For schools looking to minimize risk, cloud solutions offer a cost-effective way to achieve a range of disaster-readiness goals.

Tulane University in New Orleans knows all about disaster. Devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then pummeled by Hurricane Gustav in 2008, the school has experienced firsthand what it's like to lose valuable resources, data, and time. And it's determined never to let it happen again.

That's why the school recently decided to move its entire IT file share site to Internet2 NET+Box, a cloud-based storage and collaboration service provided through a partnership between Internet2 and Box. According to Leo Tran, assistant vice president for IT infrastructure, migrating the university's primary data center may not be far behind. And if Box ever becomes HIPPA compliant (it's already FERPA compliant), Tulane's medical school may jump on board too.

Tulane is not alone in seeking shelter in the cloud. Incorporating cloud solutions into disaster-preparedness strategies is an increasingly popular choice among businesses and higher education institutions alike. A May survey of 2,000 small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) by Symantec indicated that 41 percent of respondents utilizing a public cloud and 43 percent using private clouds believe that their cloud migration had improved their disaster readiness.

"Like SMBs, many of today's educational institutions are running on very tight budgets," said Monica Girolami, director of Symantec SMB and cloud global product marketing. "Unfortunately, this can lead to situations where disaster preparedness is pushed down on the list of priorities, but this doesn't have to be the case. Cloud-based solutions are becoming easy to deploy but--just as important--they can be cost-effective solutions for organizations of all sizes. 

Given its recent clashes with Mother Nature, it's unlikely that Tulane will ever allow disaster preparedness to become anything less than a priority. Tran's team has already moved the school's e-mail over to Microsoft Office 365, which offers secure, anywhere access to e-mail and calendars, Office Web Apps, instant messaging, conferencing, and file sharing.

Additionally, in cooperation with Texas A&M University, the university is planning to migrate to Internet2's new SIP-based phone system in the cloud. "Communication is very important," asserted Tran, whose school learned the hard way: In the aftermath of Katrina, the campus was shut down for four months, e-mail was unavailable for 45 days, and data storage was inaccessible for three weeks. "After that, we knew we needed to be up and running 24/7."

To bring together all the pieces of its emergency plan, Tulane is deploying IntraPoint Crisis Manager, a comprehensive solution for emergency and crisis-management planning, execution, and recovery.

A Hybrid Approach
Having seen its fair share of earthquakes, fires, and storms over its 150 years, the University of Washington in Seattle considers communication a top priority as well. Like Tulane, the research university is also in the process of implementing cloud-based Microsoft services to address its e-mail needs.

"We don't want to rely solely on in-house infrastructure when we have a disaster and need to communicate," said Andy Ward, manager of technology business continuity. "We're always looking for cloud solutions that meet our needs, so all of our eggs are not in one basket."

At present, the school also utilizes a cloud-based emergency-notification service, provided by Seattle-based Varolii. UW Alert allows the university to send short messages to mobile phone numbers and campus e-mail addresses in the event of an emergency.

But UW hasn't committed itself entirely to cloud-based solutions for its emergency preparedness. For example, the university is in the middle of a large-scale business continuity project that will establish redundancy for critical systems and infrastructure at a remote data center off campus.

Indeed, cloud-based solutions may not be appropriate for--or appeal to--all schools. At Missouri State University, for example, cloud computing is not an integral part of emergency-readiness plans. "We have a solid disaster-recovery plan in place with high-caliber IT staff and a remote data center 110 miles away that offers redundancy," noted CIO Jeff Morrissey. "What we have now works."

It works because Missouri State has invested heavily in disaster preparedness since 2008, when the region was hammered by an ice storm that paralyzed the university and surrounding community. "When disasters of this magnitude hit so close to home, your eyes are opened very wide and you see how it affects everything around you," said Morrissey. "That pushed us and helped us gain support around campus, from students to administration."

After that, the Missouri State University System began looking at implementing similar setups on all campuses, training faculty, and improving information security and disaster preparedness.

The decision about whether to head into the cloud or rely on remote disaster-recovery (DR) sites comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. "The question is how much risk and cost are you willing to take on?" noted Jim Bradley, assistant vice president for IT and academic computing at Tulane. In Tulane's experience, maintaining cloud resources is certainly no more costly than establishing and keeping up a remote DR site. "With a DR site, you have to duplicate software, hardware, internet connections, licenses, and more," explained Tran. "It's expensive and time consuming."

But Tulane's decision to move to the cloud is driven as much by risk aversion as it is by cost savings. While both Bradley and Tran are both quick to note that every school's needs are different, there is a sense that Tulane has looked over the precipice and learned some hard truths along the way. When asked why Tulane has been so quick to move to the cloud while other institutions are sticking to remote DR sites, Bradley simply replied: "They haven't suffered as much as we have."

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