Sydney school reinvents its backup regimes

IT staff at Sydney's Macarthur Anglican School share the challenge of managing some very important data, explain how narrow their backup window has become and share their new backup regime.

If you think your data is critical, spare a thought for the nation’s High Schools, where newfangled curricula mean that digital creations can be submitted for Year 12 assessments. If backups of those files fail, students face a world of pain as they try to reinvent “the dog ate my homework” at a nastily important part of their young lives.

This scenario is not theoretical.

Murray Benn, IT manager at Sydney’s Macarthur Anglican School says he has “had some interesting scenarios over the years.”

The school therefore became understandably interested in improving its backup capabilities so that the work churned out by its 1000 students and 100-plus teachers and support team could all get the protection it deserves.

“We have had a bit of a focus here on digital media,” Benn says. “That’s the norm in schools now. Kids make videos for projects or there are units that see them produce websites, or content stuff that is heavily graphical.” Design and technology subjects are the main culprits, with students wielding various applications to create digital projects.

Benn had long been aware of the need to back up this work and had evolved a system to do so, with a RAID-ed JBOD providing primary storage and basic backup for kids’ work, while a single tape drive ensured that administrative data was backed-up and taken off-site.

Further protection came as the school decided to put the its gigabit-Ethernet-over-fibre plant to use by installing a second JBOD in another building on its campus.

“We effectively achieved offsite backup by putting the other array it in the most distant building,” Benn says. “The chances of both buildings being taken out were slim!”

But Benn and Network Administrator Scott McGill had nagging doubts about this arrangement.

“Tape is even better,” Benn says.

The School has therefore acquired a Tandberg tape library and Bakbone’s NetVault software, which each night now perform incremental back-ups of the 8.5TB the JBODS store. Tapes are sent off-site weekly, a greater level of comfort for the IT team and, one imagines, nervous students as well!

Benn and McGill are still a little nervous, however, about two factors. One is backup windows, as the School may not have mission critical applications running 24x7, but does have a surprisingly long working day as students and staff alike take advantage of remote access to use their data well into the night.

“It’s not a simple case of knowing we can boot people off the system at 5:00PM,” McGill says. “Quite we get to 10:00PM and have users saying ‘we are just finishing up.’” The school therefore starts its backup run at midnight.

Another concern is staff laptops, as not every file that deserves to be moved from C: drives to centralised storage makes that move, thanks to reliance on manual processes.

“The biggest backup challenge is staff machines because they all have their own laptops and we try to back them up, but as they connect using a wireless LAN there is not enough bandwidth,” Benn says.

“The challenge is eventually to get their data onto the server and synchronise laptops with the server.”

And beyond that task lies the thankless chore of keeping up with students’ ability to keep on making data.

“The ongoing challenge is always capacity,” Benn says. “With 400-odd computers plus all the other peripheral devices, it’s all about capacity.”

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