Interview | Backing Up Education With STORServer

That rare type who excels at both engineering and the humanities, John Pearring is a former educator, publisher and current chairman of STORServer, a data backup solution provider. With a knack for untangling complexities and clearly communicating and constructing workable solutions, John talks with us about the seemingly complex world of  education information technology (IT) management.

Victor: To start off, what are your thoughts on education these days?

John: We have several customers in education using the STORServer Backup Appliance, including a large set of IT centers for an entire state’s educational system (Ohio ITCs). The overriding factor for education and IT centers rests on the budget. Dollars determine the direction these folks must operate from in practically all of their decision making. Education IT managers care about automation that saves time and money, scalability that saves time and money, simplification that saves time and money, and operations that save time and money (you get the theme here). The proliferations of backup appliances on the market for all industries can point to budget concerns about all four of these issues (automation, simplification, scalability and operations). Of course, the recognition of better packaging in typical data protection components plus the maturation of technologies that lead to automation has largely led to the development of backup appliances. The budget, however, increases the urgency to offer backup appliances for industries that are particularly affected by budget concerns—like education.

Victor: How is technology addressing some of your concerns about the state of education?

John: We have finally reached commonality in both compression and deduplication of backup data. Faster network travel from one site to another for large packets (in files, bytes or bits) can now overcome many of the difficulties previously prohibiting successful backups and restores. Educational institutions, however, do not typically enjoy the luxury of faster pipes that are more common in other industries. Where county and state upgrades have been made to networks, education can take advantage of increased network speeds. The fiber network upgrades that popped up in state and local governments over the past decade appear to be stalled due to the current hold on county and state funded infrastructure development.

Victor: Got any good stories that tell the tale of what you’re driving toward?  

John: Forced to consolidate disaster recovery locations a few years ago for nearly two dozen school districts in the state of Ohio, the IT managers at the Management Council of the Ohio Education Computer Network approached STORServer with plans to use high speed state-wide internet for data protection—in some fashion—to save money. The result is a “community” place for all of their disaster recovery data. As the technology roadmaps for all products began to use the term “cloud” to describe all kinds of virtual locations for storage, we created the term “community cloud” to describe what was happening in Ohio. The term is now catching fire to better identify a group (community) of companies or organizations using a “private” cloud location.

Victor: Your thoughts about technology transforming education?

John: Both teachers and students now create and manage information digitally in almost every part of the education process. The bigger problem for educational districts and enterprises has shifted to how they can protect that data, rather than how to store it.

Protected data must deal with how many versions of information should be kept, while meeting the massive number of rules applied to how long information must be kept. For every terabyte of data in production and active use, the backup storage can be anywhere from 3-10 times for these facilities.  That’s a huge amount of storage just for data protection.

Schools have some of the largest numbers of users in any industry. Thousands of users can be logged in and creating/deleting/modifying data for even the smallest of school districts.

Students and teachers should have already been the educational bed for IT development, but have lagged miserably in adopting the more expensive computing technologies available. Now that the swing has already taken place with everything from laptops to database capabilities in both the classroom and the back office, I believe a huge shift is going to take place with education soon becoming the leading edge for development in computing. In effect, research and development will be looking to the educational institutions for both beta and brainstorming the future direction of technology and IT efficiencies.

Victor: Is a simple bundle of hardware and software really an ‘appliance’?

John: No. It’s a simple bundle. An appliance is a new component, a console-driven solution, rather than a hooked up collection of stuff with various interfaces.

Victor: What’s more important in an education-based backup appliance—flexibility in size, that is to say scalability—or number of features?

John: Scalability is more important than flexibility, because the constant upgrades in features and adoption of new technologies means that an appliance must be designed to adapt to these right out of the gate. Features come with changes, and if the appliance isn’t scalable to adapt and adopt, then the features become static and the appliance becomes stale.

Victor: Can backup appliances go completely virtual? and are education IT shops equipped?

John: Yes. The hardware should already be a transforming part of a scalable appliance. That is, the appliance should allow both the server and storage to change without adversely affecting the backed up data and policies in place.

A virtual implementation of a backup appliance simply takes advantage of software views into a hardware platform.

The difficulty is in successfully providing the proper hardware requirements during a virtual implementation that meets the scalability levels needed for sizing and configuration.

Education facilities can easily equip to meet these requirements over time, because the implementation of virtualized servers and storage saves money and incorporates new and important technologies.

Victor: Should virtual machines be handled the same as physical machines in backup appliances?

John: The customer should have the option of doing so. In fact, a virtual machine mimics the exact components of a physical machine.

Managing virtual machines, however, offers enterprise IT administrators a host of different capabilities over the physically limited, traditional O/S implementations. The backup appliance should add a level of monitoring and management that allows administrators and operators the use of virtual machine tools to protect their data and machines.

Victor: Where’s the best place for backup appliances using deduplication: at the source (education users/admins) or the target (the appliance)?

John: Both options need to be available, with the controls in the hands of the administrator and his or her operators. To reduce network traffic and take advantage of local processing power source, deduplication may increase efficiency. In order to attend to the entire set of enterprise data at the appliance, administrators want the capability of shrinking the target storage requirements with deduplication.

Victor: Are backup appliances ready for large education, multi-site enterprise deployments?

John: Yes. Some manufacturers provide extremely large appliance implementations and also the option of multiple, centrally managed appliances.

Like target and source issues with technologies (deduplication, compression, encryption, etc.), administrators know best what makes more sense for them and need the power to turn the dial on the size of their dispersed appliances, and yet, centrally view and manage those appliances.

Victor: How much less expensive—should a backup appliance be—than a build-your-own?

John: To justify a rip-and-replace backup appliance implementation, the cost only needs to be the same as the current funding requirements for data protection. The advantages of backup appliances greatly exceed a build-your-own implementation for every reason we’ve already discussed (automation, simplification, scalability and operation).

If a datacenter or IT operation can get all of the cost savings included in automation, simplification, etc., with a backup appliance and spend the same amount of money they are today, then they win.

Over time, the competitive production of appliances will become dramatically cheaper than build-your-own, and in many appliances that delta has already been reached.

Victor: Alright, thanks John! A real pleasure!


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