Disaster recovery solutions for higher education

Mike Talon discusses some of the disaster recovery planning issues for higher education institutions.

Last week, I wrote about protecting data in the K-12 educational environment. Colleges and universities also have some very specific challenges to meet. Generally speaking, higher-education institutions are often larger organizations, sometimes with multiple campuses, and much more in terms of budget and IT resources.

Higher education institutions not only need to safeguard data on students, but also on significant research projects, grants and donations, and other crucial financial data that make these institutions as much like traditional businesses as schools. Due to that distinction, there is even less flexibility in the time it takes to recover from a disaster. Recovery times that reach into days and weeks may seriously cripple the school's ability to continue offering services and have severe financial repercussions.

However, larger institutions have the benefit of multiple campuses that can be used to back up each other's data resources. In many cases, you can even set up failover solutions from one campus to another for the most critical systems, and then procure recovery space after a disaster to bring back other systems quickly. This means that you might be able to keep your entire DR solution, from tape backup to replication and failover, entirely in-house, limiting cash outlays and leveraging existing relationships and facilities.

For smaller institutions, you may be able to combine forces with other schools, allowing you both to benefit by hosting each other's DR systems. Provided the schools do not offer any conflicts-of-interest with each other (such as medical schools performing competing drug research studies), this gives you all the benefits of the multi-campus environment without the physical plant. For public institutions, you can take advantage of municipal resources to find space and bandwidth for your DR needs, so even small community colleges can still afford to protect their data adequately.

Again, 2005's Hurricane Katrina provides the worst-case scenario of a disaster affecting higher education institutions. Even though Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge weathered the storm successfully, it quickly found itself as a key player in the broader disaster relief operations for the region and its schools (Tulane, Loyola, Dillard, Xavier—to name only a few). Check out the presentation by LSU's CIO Brian Voss online at Educause. There are other excellent DR resources at the Educause site. The University of Iowa provides yet another case study for campus DR, having suffered extensive tornado damage in the spring of 2006. Clearly, in recent months, these serious natural disasters have demonstrated that all the time and resources devoted to DR planning are essential to an organization's survival. Even the longest road to recovery is worth it, if your institution remains viable in the end.

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