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Calling for Backup

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School districts are searching for ways to manage their ever-increasingvolumes of content. New technologies are here to help.

AS SCHOOL DISTRICTS struggle with how to store, manage, and back up rapidly growing masses of content— gigs of e-mail, Web, audio, and video files—the data management industry hears their pain. Data storage and management systems are evolving, with new solutions that make it easier for users to choose what to save, to back uplots of data quickly, and to perform restores routinely.

Beyond the issue of configuring a storage network is determining what hardware and software to use. Choosing backup and storage management software is usually, though not always, a separate decision from choosing hardware.

A commonly used software solution is Symantec Software Backup Exec, a product formerly owned by Veritas. Symantec now ships a version for most operating systems—including Windows, NetWare, Linux, and Apple Mac OS X. The software works with tapes or disks.

DISK VS. TAPE

Hardware & Software

FOR STORAGE NEEDS BOTH LARGE AND SMALL. Here’s some good news: The cost of hard disks is dropping, making disk-based backup cheaper. That’s a plus because disks are generally faster than tapes and allow users to rewrite selectively over stored information. With tapes, users may pay less but have to read and write sequentially, which limits backup arrangements and slows restores.

A popular solution now is to back up first to disk and then to tape, the so-called D2D2T arrangement.With this method, disks are used daily for selective backup to an onsite location for quick, I-accidentally-erased-my-presentation type restores. Tapes are created periodically—daily or weekly, depending on need—for backing up an entire system for offsite storage and disaster recovery, as well as for archiving.

One way school districts can deal with the complexity of backup issues in one fell swoop is through a single integrated solution. The advantage is what the term implies— a single system to purchase and install, and a single vendor to contact for customer support. For Dare County Schools in North Carolina, this option made the most sense.

Dare County is a fairly technologically sophisticated district, with 2,600 computers districtwide and cable TV in classrooms. Also, most of the schools’ sites are connected to each other via high-speed wire. But because the 5,000-student district sits on the infamous Outer Banks, being able to recover data after a big storm isn’t a luxury. Recent storms to hit town include Isabel, the infamous Category 5 hurrricane from the 2003 season.

The ongoing threat made the implementation of a solid backup and storage management solution critical for the district, which until two years ago was relying on direct attached storage, or DAS. That meant the district’s 30-odd servers in 12 locations were backed up by 12 separate tape backup systems. In the event of a storm warning, Dare’s technology director, Carl Woody, had to trust that someone at each site grabbed the backup tapes before evacuating—and had performed the backup correctly the night before. And restores were time-consuming—simply finding the needed file on the correct tape could take hours.

To improve the situation, in 2005 the district moved to a single integrated solution from StorServer that incorporates a server, disks, a tape drive, and backup software in a rack-mounted appliance. The district now backs up not just to tapes, but to disks, too. The StorServer solution cost about $40,000; that’s balanced against savings in the form of various software licenses the district no longer needs, fewer backup tapes because there’s no redundancy, and time savings for personnel because the system is now automated.

The biggest advantage of disks over tape, Woody says, is speed. “There’s no rewind, no fast-forward; you just go right to” the data to be restored, Woody says. That makes the job of recovering a single file far faster. “A task that took 45 minutes, now takes five.”

Another benefit of an option such as StorServer is that the entire storage solution comes from one vendor. That appealed to Dare County, since the district had been using two backup software products, CA ARCserve and Veritas Backup Exec, and a separate Dell EMC server for other storage needs. “There were too many different points of failure,” Woody says. “With StorServer, any problem we might have is with StorServer.”

THE POWER OF ONE

Hardware & Software

SERVING AS A SINGLE, CENTRALIZED RESOURCE,STORAGE AREA NETWORKS MAKE DATAGATHERING MUCH MORE MANAGEABLE. For storage, school districts often use direct attached storage,or DAS, in which storage media are spread throughout the network,attached directly to individual servers.

DAS is a common configuration because it’s typically lowcost and easy to manage, at least initially. But as districts have expanded their networks, many DAS systems have morphed into multiple backup systems sprawled across a district. The result is an inefficient storage network that wastes resources and is tough to manage. With backup tape drives at multiple sites, IT staff must maintain a backup schedule for each server on the network, whatever its location, as well as make sure backup tapes get transported elsewhere for disaster-recovery purposes. Sound like a headache?

Fortunately, hardware and software advances have made a second kind of storage network more affordable for schools. A storage area network, or SAN, refers to a setup in which the storage element is a single, centrally managed resource. SANs have been around awhile, but until recently they used a Fibre Channel architecture. Fibre Channel is superfast, but can be costly and challenging to set up. That put SANs out of reach for many school districts.

In the past few years, SANs have come with a new connectivity standard called iSCSI that makes them cheaper to set up and easier to maintain. These iSCSI SANs connect using IP protocols that most IT staffs have worked with, and need only inexpensive off-the-shelf connectors and switches. EqualLogic is one storage company that specializes in iSCSI SANs. The company’s PS Series iSCSI SAN consists of hardware and software that works with a network’s existing servers, operating systems, and backup software to create a single pool of storage that’s connected to the network via an Ethernet connection and TCP/IP.

By consolidating storage into one location with a solution such as EqualLogic, it’s relatively easy to increase the storage pool as needs grow. And with users backing up and restoring from a single location, management is also easier.

Users can generally move from a DAS system to an iSCSI SAN without changing backup software, since the two are separate issues—how to connect and configure the network versus what backup software to use. For example, CA BrightStor ARCserve backup software is specifically advertised as working with a SAN or DAS, and it runs with Windows, NetWare, Unix, or Linux, as does Symantec’s Backup Exec. Still, schools may want to consider a complete storage-system revamp if they’re changing software—or at least review the data storage and management costs for comparison.

The upshot? Schools planning to switch out any aspect of their backup and storage solutions should take a hard look at iSCSI SANs.

Making Things Easy

Although storage and data management can seem overwhelming as data volumes grow, new solutions make the chore easier. Also, recent disasters such as Hurricane Katrina have put data storage and backup needs front and center with management, making it easier to pry dollars loose for such expenses. With some planning, storage management, backup, and especially restore routines can become the sort of trouble- free, everyday processes they should be.

Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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