3 Data Storage Challenges in the Education Industry



By Narayanan Prasath for Beyond The Blocks - Monday, May 08, 2017

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Regardless of the sector you are in, the surging need for storage management is not news anymore. In the last decade alone, the education sector has seen the rise of several software technologies designed  to solve some of the challenges in the industry and improve productivity.

Some of those technologies today have matured and have become mainstream for most schools, colleges, and universities. From full-fledged education management systems to modular course programs that are utilized based on demand by institutions, there is now a myriad of ‘solutions’ that occupy this space.

Regardless of the scope of these solutions, they all have posed significant demands on the IT infrastructure. For instance, in order to support complex software applications, and properly allocate system resources, organizations have started to focus on improving their existing architecture. IT departments have this difficult task of accommodating new applications, while continually struggling to meet the increasing  demand for capacity, protection, and resource management.

Becoming a star in your industry is a matter of identifying the challenges and being proactive about solving them. Data Storage management, which is at the core of the architecture, has crept its way to the top of the priority list of many IT managers. Here we break down the bigger challenge, i.e. storage management, and look at the factors that contribute to this growing concern.

A number of recent trends and realities in the education sector have brought about the rapid development of the latest end user applications, which in turn,  have given rise to data storage challenges. Let me first establish what these trends are before going into further detail:

  • Increase in BYOD Adoption
  • Data Generation and Hoarding
  • Academic Policies on Information Storage
  • Rise of Ransomware

Now, these trends have led to several challenges in the backend of things, thus requiring support in some core areas. There are three pillars that need to be strengthened in order to tackle the hurdles and sustain routine day-to-day operations of any educational institution. These are Reliability, Security, and Optimization.

Reliability

Reliability is the first and foremost quality that an IT manager looks for in storage systems. A system is considered reliable when it is well able to perform the backup function and handling of surges, and ideally, with less human intervention. After all, availability of data is of prime importance for education, and the lack of data accessibility  would adversely affect the institution’s daily operations.

When an institution uses periodic data backups, critical data such as student grades can be put at risk. Systems could crash during the backup windows, leaving  data inconsistent. Losing student grades due to poor IT infrastructure is the worst nightmare for any educational organization.Think about it; the stakes are high with this kind of data because students won’t be able to  graduate, careers can get ruined before they even started, and the institutions can be held liable for all these.

Having a reliable system that can easily scale up for a larger group when needed is  very important, as there can be surges in application usage during assignment deadlines and final exams. Database failures are likely to happen once in a while in any organization, but especially when the system is not ready for a sudden increase in resource demand. To ensure business continuity, it is wise to proactively set up the necessary provisions that can help the institution recover from such instances, and get systems up and running.

IT systems in schools and universities also  require constant storage management because the end-users are generating data all the time. It’s a time-consuming activity to manually administer storage tiering of data, when in fact, such function can rather be automated. However, higher-education organizations often don’t have pockets deep enough to purchase the most cutting-edge technology. It is thus quite challenging to find an affordable system that requires minimal intervention.

Then there are the other problems.

Security

Maintaining information security for educational institutions is another growing problem that IT teams continue to struggle with.The spate of Ransomware attacks targeting schools across the United States has proven that this industry is a major target for hackers. Thirteen percent of the higher education sector has been infected with Ransomware, according to this source. As we all know, a ransomware attack can encrypt every single file in the network, and can therefore bring the day-to-day functioning of the school to an abrupt halt.

With nifty RaaS products like Satan, Stampado's, etc., Ransomware reigns supreme these days. Anyone today can outsource these attacks with just a click of a button. Even with strict security protocols and encryption in place, this is still a serious issue faced by several organizations, not only those in Education. But the risks of a Ransomware incident or any malware attack are multiplied in these environments. Why is this?

Typically, schools share the same network architecture. Students’ devices–likely unprotected–, are connected to the network and could serve as easy loopholes to attack the system. The BYOD policy has presented a significant risk for educational institutions, and not only on the student side.

Faculty members, who are usually allowed to design, implement, and set up  courses the way they want to, also bring devices and download components with them too which  can pose risks to the institution. A device or system that has fallen victim to Ransomware could start a domino effect, leading to other systems in the same network,or even in other networks, and before you know it, it could lock down an entire district. Without backup systems in place, they run the very crucial risk of abiding by the criminal’s demands.

In most of the past cases, despite the notorious pricing strategy of these attacks, schools had to make a business decision to pay the ransom and ensure continuity. This may not be an ethical decision to make, but from a business standpoint, it makes for a more sound decision. A lot of the affected schools end up paying the ransom because it is a faster and more cost efficient way of recovering the massive amounts of data from their servers. Even if you have a way of getting back the data without complying to the cybercriminals’ demands, the process could easily take several days or weeks depending on the scale of the organization. No administrator would like to have the burden of rescheduling an academic year due to a ransomware attack.

No matter how you respond to it, a security breach of this magnitude would be an embarrassing situation for the stakeholders involved, and having a layered approach to security with traditional prevention & threat detection systems in place is a must. But it case an attack gets through, which is still a possibility, an affordable storage system with a very low RTO and RPO is the last layer of defense against this problem.

Compliance and Regulations

We won’t dive into the details any specific regulation here because they ultimately depend on the Institution itself. But one thing we are sure of is that, if you are a State University, we are talking at least of the traditional regulatory requirements.

These include sending risk assessments reports back to the State, carrying out regular user accounts auditing, and performing all other regulatory requirements such as Accessibility (ADA), Privacy (HIPAA), and many others. No doubt, things are getting complex for a Higher-Ed sysadmin these days.

Optimization

With newer education management systems becoming a mainstream today, IT departments are not only tasked to maintain email clients, resource databases and academic records in a traditional manner. They also need to have a sophisticated architecture in the back-end to support advanced education management systems. Data is being generated from different devices and in various formats. Moreover, the end users are data hoarders, meaning, more data is being generated and stored.

With these challenges that demand better data management, data needs to be tiered for efficient use of storage. Supporting different devices and operating systems is requiring more resources of the IT team. This makes  IT Infrastructure optimization a big problem.

As every academic cycle begins, databases need to be archived, while new student information are created and allocated space. It just doesn’t make sense to spend time on repetitive work such as scheduling backups, taking snapshots, or storage tiering for that matter, when you can get all of these functions performed automatically.

Separation of workloads is vital; this should be the  default and most institutions already follow this plan of action. But it just can’t be emphasized enough: there should be strict policies on bounding different data sets and the infrastructure they are to be placed on.

Another new functionality starting to demand resources is data analytics. Student performance is not only calculated using the basic standards like scores in tests and other graded exercises. Today, more micro level factors like engagement in the forums on the platform and others,. are analyzed to provide a more holistic performance overview. Storage performance optimization plays a vital role in aiding smooth operations of data analytics.

Making sure that the organization has the right system in place to make the needed changes at the right speed is the high priority for most IT managers today. Ease of use plays a vital role regarding knowledge transfer and data management. Data management systems that utilize  a more human-centric approach eliminate complexity and allow managers to do productive work. This type of efficient system goes a long way towards simplifying and accelerating data management.

Are you looking to improve the storage infrastructure of your Institution? Do you empathize with at least one of the challenges mentioned in the article above? We do.

And because we understand you, let us help.

Get started by learning specifically how California’s most innovative education offices transformed their IT infrastructure by investing in a smarter storage technology.

Transform your IT infrastructure

Narayanan Prasath

Written by Narayanan Prasath

Narayanan holds a mixed and unusual background. He served as IT infrastructure engineer in a major financial company, yet, he is passionate about visual effects and has worked with several independent film-makers and start-ups helping them tell their stories. At Reduxio, Narayanan works to inform IT professionals about the latest trends and news of the storage industry, and how to navigate the complexity of the market to make better and smarter decisions, in a visually compelling manner. He is also a digital artist and worships human-centered-design.



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