A Tight Squeeze


As government regulations mandate the longterm retention of districts' rising volume of information, K-12 IT directors are using new storage tools to put their data in its place.

A Tight SqueezeTHE STORAGE NETWORKING Industry Association (SNIA) doesn't mince words when describing the looming data storage problem. In its 2007 report, "Solving the Coming Archive Crisis-- the 100-Year Dilemma," the trade group asserts, "The volume of disparate digital information sources being kept online for long-term preservation is overwhelming and leading to a crisis of cost, business risk, and complexity."

It wasn't so long ago that a 40-gigabyte hard drive seemed gigantic, but today it seems that gigabytes and terabytes-- and even petabytes, which are 1,000 times the size of terabytes-- aren't enough to store the volume of data we generate. And as federal and state agencies demand that more information be kept for longer periods of time, organizations are running out of space faster than ever.

"The responsible handling of electronic information and records should be considered a core value of an organization."

Upon surveying 276 organizations from various sectors, including education, last year, the SNIA found that 80 percent of respondents reported a need to keep information for more than 50 years; 68 percent needed to retain it for more than 100 years. The respondents cited four major factors that made long-term storage essential: legal risk (60 percent), compliance requirements (55 percent), business risk (52 percent), and security risk (38 percent). Given these circumstances, says Michael Peterson, chief strategy advocate of the SNIA's Data Management Forum, "The responsible handling of electronic information and records should be considered a core value of an organization."

Certainly, K-12 school districts have become meticulous information hoarders, if for no other reason than to comply with stringent federal and state mandates to store student records. Despite shortages of staff and funding, many districts have taken a proactive approach, either investing in the latest storage technologies or using a combination of old and new techniques to back up and store information.

The consensus among IT pros is that while tape drives and DVDs won't go away any time soon, storage technology is leaning decisively toward virtualization: pooling physical storage from multiple devices into what appears to be a single storage device managed from a central console.

Administrators also favor storage area networks (SANs: high-performance networks that allow for many terabytes of centralized file storage or high-speed file transfer operations) over network attached storage (NAS). SANs have greater storage capacity and support a broader range of applications than an NAS device, which is an independent entity that is limited to applications that access data at the file level. Multiple NAS devices can be attached to a network. In terms of hardware, blade servers, which house several servers (thin circuit boards called "server blades") in a single chassis, deliver the best value for the money, offsetting their initial cost through increased processing power, greater efficiency, and reduced cabling and power consumption. As part of SANs, they're a powerful way to expand storage capability.

'I Don't Know. I Saved It Somewhere'

That dream storage setup, however, isn't within every institution's reach. Jay McPhail, director of K-12 instructional technology at Riverside Unified School District in Southern California, manages the storage needs for the district's 45 schools and tens of thousands of students. He points out that schools usually don't have the budget to buy and maintain top-of-the-line systems. In the case of Riverside, administrators found file-based network storage "very expensive," he says. "At the same time, we wanted to extend information access beyond the classroom."

Mixing the Traditional With the Virtual

SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS may yet not be able to afford top-of-the-line storage devices, but they're certainly moving in the right direction, says Richard Lessard, vice president of sales and marketing at Windsor Management Group, a provider of financial systems to K-12 institutions. "We are seeing more laptops in the hands of administrators, teachers, and students, and school districts moving toward ways to store data electronically," he says. "I'm impressed with the volume they're storing online."

Lessard notes that much of the new dynamism in K-12 is due to increasingly rigorous government mandates to store student data for many years, as well as a perceived need to archive e-mail for legal reasons. As a result, many districts are scraping up the dollars to invest in technology they might not have considered otherwise.

"Virtualization is the most common emerging trend, although they're still trying to figure out the return on investment to support it," he says. "Typically, the districts in the 7,000- to 10,000-student range and above can manage those complex environments. The districts in the middle, with 5,000 students or fewer, are looking for a combination of storage methods, or for a vendor to provide and host the application and manage the servers."

In general, Lessard believes, K-12 administrators tend to opt for a mix of traditional storage devices, such as tape, and virtual methods. While budget is one restriction, a more pressing one is lack of trained staff to manage advanced systems. "What we've seen in K-12 is that they tend to stick to applications and resources that they can get competent staff to support," Lessard says. "Systems such as Oracle are not predominant because they require pretty advanced support staff. A lot of schools even outsource IT management to a local supplier because they don't have in-house resources."

Like many school administrators throughout the US, McPhail turned to a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform to meet growing storage capacity requirements. He found what he wanted in School Web Lockers, a web-based storage and collaboration technology. Once a school or school district purchases the system, it receives its own secure, password-protected website. All students, teachers, and administrators get a personal web locker, also called a digital drop box. Teachers can upload documents and assignments and post them directly into students' web lockers. Students can start their work on a computer at school and stash it in their web locker to finish at home or elsewhere. All files are backed up daily and preserved from year to year.

The service also offers other security and safety measures, such as blocked file types, parental sign-in to keep tabs on grades and attendance, and the ability for teachers and school administrators to monitor what students are storing. School Web Lockers also provides teacher blogs and message boards for schoolwide or even districtwide online discussions.

"The old story used to be, 'My dog ate my homework'; now it's 'I don't know, I saved it somewhere,'" says McPhail. "We wanted to make sure that students had actually done their work. Another issue was that we wanted a file structure that was associated with a student's classes, so if someone had five classes, all would show up in that person's locker, with the related assignments. [E-learning software provider] Blackboard is just starting to be used in K-12, but Web Locker is very similar, and the cost is a fraction. It costs us about 50 cents to a dollar per student per year, about 80 percent less than Blackboard."

McPhail also chose School Web Lockers, he says, for the vendor's flexibility. "We worked with them and asked for modifications, and they customized it for us. We asked them to include blogs, for example."

In McPhail's view, the system is a perfect complement to other, more traditional storage methods. He uses a server cloud-- a combination of servers, connections, software, and other services-- to store and access the school district's administrative records, backed up by tape and DVD and saved in another location. The solution expands the district's storage capacity and also offers a more secure alternative to portable devices such as USB drives or CDs. In addition, since students access their data on a separate domain from the school network, critical administrative data remains secure.

Saving Money With SANs

Storage area networks are found primarily in large enterprises. Their cost typically runs into six figures, and they require specialized knowledge and training on the part of administrators to maintain them. Still, upgrading to SANs has distinctive advantages, as Brett Littrell, network manager for California's Milpitas Unified School District, has discovered.

In a recent survey that included educational institutions, 80 percent of respondents reported a need to keep information for more than 50 years. Nearly 70 percent said they needed to store information for more than 100 years.

Littrell manages the technology and network systems for about 10,000 students and 1,000 employees. The district's computer network hosts around 2,000 to 2,500 client computers, with three technicians to maintain them all. After a server crash following an e-mail backup, Littrell switched to Axiom, a storage system from Pillar Data Systems, as part of the district's upgrade to SANs.

"The reason we're moving to SANs is to save money in the long term," he says. "I was worried that it would mean spending a lot, but it turned out to be very affordable. We spent about $150,000 total, including seven blade servers and 10 terabytes of storage. We currently use only about five terabytes, so it's nice to be able to continually expand."

That's a lot of money for a school district, but Littrell emphasizes the need to think long term and consider giving up other items on the wish list. "What we ended up having to do was forgo upgrading some servers for this. It's a significant entry cost, but in the end, you save a lot more."

Currently, the district's SAN stores educational programs, home directories (such as e-mail and documents that teachers and students store), and web servers. All student records will eventually move to the SAN, says Littrell.

The payoff of a SAN is a huge increase in IT efficiency, Littrell says. "In a business, you can buy a server and fully utilize it. Sometimes with schools, you may need a server for a program, but you'll have to buy a lot of stuff-- hard drives and so on-- just to run a very simple program that does not utilize the server's capacity. With a SAN, you can create a small virtual server that has just the storage you need. There was an initial cost in moving to blade, but we're now using the system's processing power and memory more efficiently. But one of the issues with schools is that initial cost."

On the Bleeding Edge

Serving more than 23,000 students and spreading across 113 square miles of California's Central Valley, about 80 miles east of San Francisco, Manteca Unified School District needs all the data storage capacity it can get. Fortunately, Manteca is one of those uncommon K-12 institutions whose budget allows for advanced systems, including the recent implementation of a storage area network from EMC.

"We like to consider ourselves a district on the bleeding edge of technology," says Systems Administrator Supervisor Colby Clark. "We run Windows 2008 servers, Exchange 2007 unified messaging, EMC's SAN solution, Dell blade servers, green IT-- we've virtualized over 20 servers using the VMware ESX platform." Paper administrative records have been converted into electronic versions through Xerox's DocuShare document management system and now reside on the SAN.

But Clark isn't content with these achievements. He's already thinking about the tribulations of archiving e-mail, especially personal storage files (PSTs) that individual users create on their hard drives. PSTs often squeeze disk space, can be accessed by only one user at a time, and are not part of normal security backups. "Our PST files had become too large and were eroding system performance," Clark says.

He's therefore moving all PSTs into a centrally stored archive, deploying Mimosa Systems' NearPoint content archiving solution. Working with Microsoft's Exchange servers, the software allows organizations to capture e-mail and archive it to lower-cost storage. Users can also slot the stored e-mail into repositories that can be searched automatically to find specific documents-- once a tedious manual process that involved plowing through backup tapes.

Clark is well aware that as K-12 institutions go, Manteca's technological capabilities are unusual, and he attributes that to support from the top. "We have an assistant superintendent of business services who is very pro-technology," he says. "That has been a big help for us. Manteca Unified is seen as a beacon for technology in the Central Valley." And, he says, the investment in storage devices is "reasonable and affordable when you think about what you're getting for your money. The Dell/EMC server has dual redundancy for the most part. You could lose disk drives and still access the data. We have 99 percent uptime for all our applications."

Price, Product, Service

Like Manteca, Bonneville Joint School District 93 in Idaho, with one of the largest K-12 school populations (more than 9,000 students) in the state, faced a burgeoning data storage problem. Unlike Manteca, it didn't have a generous technology budget. But System Administrator Lane Virgin found a solution that was affordable and could be scaled up if necessary. He installed a disk backup and data protection application from Revinetix that came with extensive technical support.

"We were looking for something relatively easy to manage that was expandable," Virgin says. "In the last four years, we've added four new schools and expect to add four more in the next two years. We're constantly adding servers, and more students means more data."

Before installing the Revinetix program, Bonneville used a network attached storage device to back up files weekly from its 70-odd Dell servers. Archiving was largely manual and often took an entire weekend to complete. In addition, space restrictions required the data to be stored off-site in NAS devices at various schools, making information retrieval confusing and time-consuming. By contrast, the Revinetix appliance consolidates and backs up data automatically. "We have enough storage to meet our needs right now-- although two terabytes seems like a lot until you start using it," Virgin says.

As for keeping up with storage trends, he considers it a diffi- cult thing to do because of K-12's ever-increasing storage demands. "It's a very dynamic market, because we have a higher turnover rate than most businesses and most of our customers are under the age of 18, which is a whole new can of worms." The technology habits of that demographic pose threats to information security, as well as create storage dilemmas. "Students use flash drives a lot. Kids can store anything on a flash drive, and eventually we're going to have to address this from a security point of view."

He says that Bonneville doesn't allow personal laptops in its schools, and that students retrieve their work from home drives on the school's server. "It's a unique situation because we expect kids to get their work done, but how do you maintain security as well as network integrity?"

Without all the assets to tackle so many different needs, Virgin says that implementing major IT storage projects in a K-12 environment is a daunting task. "The business world is very different. I take care of 70 servers for 16 or 17 schools. I also maintain 3,500 student accounts and 800 Microsoft Exchange mailboxes. We have limited personnel to do all these things. So we're behind the curve on technology. We don't have the manpower to do the research and deployment."

Given the current condition of K-12 budgets, he adds, districts are compelled to "really think outside the box and look at new products. We look at several different things-- price, product, and service. The last one is very important. We're on first-name terms with a lot of people at Revinetix. We've actually dropped vendors whose products are cheaper but whose service is poor."

Data storage is ultimately no different from any other K-12 consideration: Limited funding forces districts to be resourceful in addressing their needs. "You're not getting a million-dollar grant," says Milpitas USD's Littrell. "In most school districts, there's no money set aside for training. A lot of school districts don't allow people to go out and get training; they don't pay for it or for the extra cost for consultants. So you do what you can with what you've got."

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Rama Ramaswami is a business and technology writer based in Wilton, CT.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.