Nov 16 2023

How Disaster Recovery Solutions Help Universities Get Their Data Back

Cloud-based disaster recovery solutions help universities bounce back from cyber incidents.

At Butler University, the cloud is a key piece of the school’s disaster recovery strategy. The IT team backs up systems across multiple data centers, and it uses Synology to add an extra layer of protection with cloud-based backups.

“With the encryption of backups and deletion of backups as part of ransomware attacks these days, we wanted to have that air-gapped solution of backups in the cloud. That’s our last line of defense. We’re falling back to that if everything else is wiped out,” says Jim Patrick, infrastructure architect for the university.

Disaster can take many forms in higher education, from ransomware to fire or flood. And with natural disasters increasing in frequency and severity, many schools are looking to cloud-based backups to ensure operational resilience.

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Why Are Higher Ed Institutions Turning to Cloud Backups?

Experts point to a number of reasons that colleges and universities might choose cloud backups for disaster recovery.

Compared to traditional tape backups, cloud is “arguably cheaper,” says Moses Frost, senior technical consultant for Neuvik. “They don’t have to maintain server tape infrastructure. They don’t have to procure the servers, do the care and feeding of them, have personnel for them.”

Likewise, cloud delivered as a service can simplify funding for disaster recovery. Disaster recovery in the cloud offers “the opportunity to save your capital budget,” says Sean O’Brien, associate vice president for NET+ cloud services at Internet2. “Switching from that capital expense to an operating expense for disaster recovery in the cloud can be attractive.”

Cloud backups are also more likely to survive. “Natural disasters are increasing around the world, and that makes it much more difficult to find a suitable location to store physical media. If you are worried about a flood or a hurricane, storing your tapes in a facility might be a challenge,” Frost says.

Cloud-Based Backup Solutions Offer Redundancy

At Butler University, Patrick has a disaster recovery system in place that includes multiple backups.

“We have a primary data center on campus, and then we have a smaller location across campus. Our backup target on campus is in that secondary location,” he says. “From there, we replicate to a co-location that’s across town, and we also replicate in the cloud. We’ve got backups upon backups replicated.”

For the cloud piece, the school opted for Synology, in part for its all-in-one offering.

“We’re very conscious of the dollars we spend,” Patrick says. “We were able to save thousands of dollars over the life of this hardware with Synology. You buy the hardware, you get the software; it’s all one bundle.”

Jim Patrick headshot
With the encryption of backups and deletion of backups as part of ransomware attacks these days, we wanted to have that air-gapped solution of backups in the cloud.”

Jim Patrick Infrastructure Architect, Butler University

At Pittsburg State University in Kansas, IT likewise looks to ensure that backups will be available in case of disaster. In addition to replicating data in real time across multiple servers, the school uses a combination of Commvault and Backblaze to back up in the cloud for extra protection.

“We are using the belt and suspenders here,” says Tim Pearson, the university’s director of infrastructure and security.

Commvault delivers nightly backups stored in three different locations. Two copies go to on-campus data centers, “and the third copy is stored in the cloud using Backblaze,” he says. “We’re using Object Lock on that backup. Even if you got my administrator credentials, you could not delete, alter or encrypt the backup that we keep in the cloud. That one is frozen in time for 30 days. Nobody, including our vendor, can delete it.”

The cloud copy offers geographic redundancy: If a tornado hits the campus data centers, a faraway backup is still available. And the immutability of the cloud copy ensures that the data will be intact if it is needed for disaster recovery.

While Pearson hasn’t had to restore data in a disaster scenario, routine use of his backups shows that they’ll be ready when they are needed.

“Normally, what we run into is an, ‘Oops, I ran this posting job and posted all these invoices, and I shouldn’t have done that because now I’ve introduced a thousand incorrect transactions into my general ledger. Can you fix that for me?’ he says. For the average virtual machine, “it takes about 30 to 40 minutes, and they’re up and running again.”

$3.34 billion

Size of the cloud backup market in 2022; it’s projected to reach $20.6 billion by 2030

Source: Verified Market Research, “Cloud Backup Market Size, Share, Trends, Scope, Forecast,” September 2023

Universities Share Best Practices for Cloud Backups

Several key best practices help schools to leverage cloud backups for effective disaster recovery.

At Butler, Patrick is thoughtful about access control, making sure to limit who can engage with backups. “We’ve gone through and really locked down to make them as isolated as possible,” he says. “Only our backup administrators have access to the Synology systems and the backup software, and they have to use multifactor authentication to get into the units.”

At Pittsburg, Pearson periodically puts his system through the paces to ensure that everything will run smoothly should the need arise.

“We select a random virtual machine backup from one of our backup repositories and do a test restore, just to make certain that the restore process works as we expect,” he says. “We do that once a quarter, on average, to make certain that everything works properly.”

Overall, these experts say, cloud-based backups far outstrip legacy solutions such as tape backups. They offer geographic diversity as a hedge against natural disaster. Access control is easier to manage versus physical media. And should disaster strike, cloud-based data can be brought to life far more quickly and with less effort.

“If we had to restore from those traditional backups the volume of data that we have on this campus, it would take many days of the restore program running flat out,” Pearson says.

Cloud achieves the same end with vastly less time and work needed. That means campuses can stay up and running in the face of ransomware, a natural disaster or any other significant disruption.

Illustration by Koivo

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