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Case Study: Freedom Area School District's Virtualized Back-up Plan

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The IT needs here at the Freedom Area School District just north of Pittsburgh, PA, are always shifting and growing. One thing that remains constant, however, is the need to back up our systems quickly, safely, and securely in the event of a mishap. More important, however, is the ability to restore that backup when and where we need it, regardless of the hardware we have at hand.

We needed a backup strategy that could handle nine Windows 2003-based servers along with a mix of 1,200 desktop and laptop computers used by students in a high school, middle school, and two elementary schools. As technology coordinator with only one other part-time staffer, my focus was to find a reliable, turnkey solution to the backup conundrum that worked right out of the box that would save us money and time.

We were using a digital audio tape (DAT) drive from Seagate Technology that had been in place for eight months. The product could load tapes automatically and allowed us to set up a backup schedule that executed without supervision.

But tape makes me nervous. I have heard enough horror stories from friends in the industry about the quality of tapes degrading, getting corrupted, or when they did a restore found that not all the information they needed was on it. With each of the nine servers dedicated to a different application holding local and critical data, including the Library System and Health Master for the nurses, we couldn't afford any lengthy down time.

Another issue with tape was time. The district needed an alternative that could be back up and running in minutes, not hours or days, and the administrative processes associated with tape were just tacks in the road.

The Search
With a list of priorities firmly in hand, we searched for a backup and disaster recovery software package with the necessary features and that could handle the mix of servers and desktop systems we had.

We considered several candidates, but some were too complex or expensive. And because our nine rack-mounted servers are from Dell Computer Systems, along with most of the PCs, we checked their Web site looking at a range of tape solutions. A network-attached storage (NAS) drive was technically possible, but the cost was prohibitive. We wound up settling on Acronis True Image Enterprise Server, an imaging backup solution. Through our own hands-on evaluation, as well as in talking to other technicians, the Acronis product seemed to be a good fit. For example, it didn't require adding extra drivers for different types of network cards. It also had a familiar Windows XP-like interface.

Another requirement we had was to keep the image size down so we could store images on either NAS devices, CDs or DVDs. We also needed the ability to manipulate the images, including mounting them as drive letters under "My Computers" in Windows.

My small but dedicated technical staff evaluated each product on a number of different levels. For example, one person would test the time it takes to make an image using each product while another would test mass deployment using each product. I also did some test backups using a 1 TB network hard drive made by Buffalo Technology, called the Devastation. (We deployed one in every building in the district.) Once the tests were completed, we would then all come back together and compare our findings.

Budgetary Considerations
We are constantly looking for ways to stretch a dollar. As an example, the school system received a "Classroom of the Future" grant from the State of Pennsylvania. We used Acronis Snap Deploy to image more than 600 new laptops that were purchased with grant funds. The grant also allowed us to add a technology coach who helps out with break-fix jobs, but because of the ease and speed at which we can deploy and restore images, we can spend more time helping integrate the technology into the curriculum and helping educate teachers than worrying about system deployments.

With regard to our backup project, there had to be a compelling cost-benefit equation.

First, I met with our business manger and the superintendent to see if there was enough money in the budget. We have $100,000 per year to spend on new hardware, another $100,000 for things like software upgrades and licensing, and extra money set aside for unexpected developments, such as crashes.

Next, we went to the school board to explain what we were hoping to accomplish with the new products. The case for adopting a new image-based backup solution was readily apparent. The board approved and the purchase order was cut.

Results
We wanted time savings, and we got it. First, we quickly installed the new Acronis software. It was not long after this that our efforts started to pay dividends. When our e-mail server crashed, we restored the system and got back up and running much faster because we didn't have to reinstall the server and all its updates, as well as the backup.

We also saw significant improvement in the response time of the IT staff. We can re-image any computers experiencing problems much faster, which allows us to reach more users in a shorter period of time. Our entire staff is equipped with bootable CDs and DVDs to give to the experienced users. This puts more power into the hands of teachers and non-IT personnel and so frees up the IT staff to move on and address the issues other users were having.

There was one glitch in the system that we set up, which involved our existing network infrastructure. In some cases it was necessary to separate out the imaging equipment from the rest of the network while we were imaging because of network congestion.

Technology Should Advance the Educational Process
When I was hired here, I hoped to spend time educating teachers and students on how to use technology effectively. But there always seems to be something that needs to be fixed or some project that needs to be kept on schedule. We are getting younger teachers here who want to use technology such as laptops, projectors and smart boards, but get frustrated because there is not enough technical support available for them. At times it can feel like a dam springing holes and I am plugging them with all my fingers and toes.

The best technology should just work--whether it is the computers on which our kids and teachers work, or the backup system that protects them. That way, we as IT managers can focus more time and effort on helping people do their jobs better, which ultimately produces a better learning environment.

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About the author: Matt Scala is a technology coordinator with the Freedom Area School District.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

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