Storage Solution Gets Top Grades at University

The volume, variety, and velocity of data coming in today are unprecedented. That was the challenge facing the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, where Ph.D. students who research communication had to devote a great deal of time and energy to make the school’s cobbled-together storage and backup solution keep pace with their workload.

As the students study media, they work with very large data sets that often include video. Consequently, the “need for storage increases exponentially every year,” says Senior IT Director Richard Cardona.

For its accessible storage needs, the university cannot store backups in a secured vault some distance away. It must keep the backup system on its premises to ensure the data is readily available—and without going over budget.

The former storage infrastructure was based on a number of devices attached to a network. Cardona observes that it was “something stitched together that didn’t fit very well.” As an administrator, he saw that many people on the staff had to devote a lot of time to “making these things work together” and backing up the data as needed.

The staff was often frustrated by the amount of time required for switching tapes in and out, finding backup libraries and spending hours on the phone with service technicians. That made it harder to retain good people, some of whom got more lucrative job offers at nearby companies with better technology.

Comparing Capabilities and Costs of Backup Services

Realizing that a more advanced storage and backup solution was needed, Cardona’s team looked at various backup services to compare capabilities and costs. While there are a number of inexpensive storage options for devices, they are usually not that easy to back up.

The new head engineer recommended that the university consider Cohesity, a vendor of secondary storage systems. After reviewing the system, the IT team concluded that the consolidated solution met all its needs for secondary storage and getting backup processes under control.

Cohesity is built primarily for secondary storage (storing data that doesn’t require strict service-level agreements). This includes backups, test/dev, file services and analytics. The system consolidates all these secondary storage use cases onto a single web-scale hyperconverged platform.

The Annenberg School has been using Cohesity for about a year. Cardona is pleased with the performance and the “nice to have” features like some of the reporting it can do. The tools that come with the system are easy to deploy, provision, set up backups and restore. It’s easy to use and doesn’t require extended or intensive training.

Primarily, the school uses Cohesity for data backup. However, it also can use the system for some active data for source material that students may draw on for projects that involve large files that need to be live and accessible.

In addition, the system gives students the option of using it for testing, development and modeling when they need to do number crunching on large data sets downloaded from sources like the CDC, election surveys, etc. Cardona explains that it is very helpful for students who need this capability.

Though some cost savings result from the backup system—the school no longer has to buy backup tapes and pay to store them in a vault—the more valuable benefit is a time saving. One example Cardona offers is that when a web server was compromised, his team was able to restore the machine in just 20 minutes. That kind of efficiency makes it possible to direct staff time to more important tasks, thereby creating greater job satisfaction.

In Cardona’s eyes, the biggest advantage of getting this simplified solution in place is the improvement of morale for his staff. A research university can’t compete with a major company on the basis of pay, as businesses tend to pay 10 to 20 percent more than academia. What it can offer skilled people is an “enjoyable place to work” where they feel like they’re “contributing to society.”

That good feeling can be eroded when employees have to do repetitive tasks below their skill sets—a necessity with the former storage system. Now, the Annenberg School has solved its secondary storage challenges, as well as its staff turnover problem.