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Rubrik backup, Compellent SAN power MoA data center

Mall of America IT director says she'd rather have her staff working on other things -- such as data analytics -- than managing storage and data backup.

With its diverse type of businesses, size and massive data under management, Mall of America IT director Janette Smrcka likens her job to running IT for a small city.

Around 40 million people visit Mall of America (MoA) in Bloomington, Minn., each year. The 2.56 million square foot site has more than 500 stores, an entertainment center, aquarium, theme park, two hotels, 11,000 year-round employees and its own zip code.

It also has its own data center and petabytes (PBs) of data, which must be stored and protected. Smrcka said she looks for IT products that are easy to manage without requiring a lot of her staff's time.

"It's really a small city that we're running," she said. "It's critical for us to be as efficient as possible.

Smrcka said her team includes less than 20 IT people who handle project management, analytics, networking, security and other disciplines. Most stores in the mall have their own IT staff, but MoA runs the entertainment center and several food and gift shops on the site. MoA IT also handles the mall's closed circuit TV from security cameras.

To store, manage and protect all that data, MoA uses a Dell EMC Compellent midrange SAN array and Rubrik Cloud Data Management backup appliances. MoA was an early customer of Compellent, which launched out of Minnesota in 2003 before Dell acquired the company in 2010. Smrcka said MoA has more than 1 PB of data on the Compellent SAN.

MoA became a Rubrik backup customer in mid-2017. Smrcka said Compellent and Rubrik backup products are easy to manage.

Mall of America IT director Janette SmrckaJanette Smrcka

"Before Compellent, we spent a lot of time managing our SAN," she said. "When we switched to Compellent, management took care of itself. And Rubrik backup is the same way. The support team is proactive, always responsive and well-educated."

MoA used tape backup before switching to a four-node Rubrik backup cluster. Smrcka said her team found tape far from efficient.

"The time we spent managing our backups, maintaining equipment, swapping out tapes, ensuring software was patched, all took time and effort from our team," she said. "We said, 'This isn't where we want to spend our time.' Now those things are non-issues. We don't have to spend that much time managing our backup anymore. And we're confident we can restore right away whenever we need to. Before we frequently ran into issues where restores from tape wouldn't work as expected."

She said MoA switched over to Rubrik while preparing a Microsoft SQL Server migration.

"We used to have to all work overnight when doing a SQL upgrade," Smrcka said. "We were planning a large upgrade for our point-of-sales system, and we were concerned. We thought we might have to consider a time when we would have to go manual because the backup and restore process would take too long, and we'd have a business interruption. But with Rubrik it took just a few hours to transition from backup and restore and get everything up and running on the new database."

Rubrik also proves valuable to MoA because of its Microsoft Hyper-V support. Smrcka said she finds Hyper-V support is often lacking because third-party vendors concentrate on VMware hypervisors.

"We find Hyper-V usually comes second with platforms," she said. "Rubrik has native Hyper-V integration. We get the full suite of features with Hyper-V, and that alleviated some of our concerns and made it an easy decision."

Smrcka is still waiting for full Microsoft Office 365 support from Rubrik, though. MoA stores email, Microsoft SharePoint and other business documents on Office 365.

"We're also looking at other places where a cloud platform might be more effective than a traditional on-premises system," Smrcka said.

MoA uses AvePoint to protect Office 365 because Rubrik does not have sufficient coverage.

"We still see a big gap with Office 365," Smrcka said of Rubrik. "Rubrik is advancing that platform but not for [Microsoft] Teams and some of the other features we need. They looked at native email backup first, which didn't make sense for our use case."

But overall, she said the switch to Rubrik brought a reduction in labor for managing data protection.

"That allows us to focus on other initiatives that provide more tangible benefits for the organization instead of just keeping everything up and running," Smrcka said.

One of those initiatives is running data analytics. MoA works closely with the Carlson School of Management's Analytics Lab, which is part of the University of Minnesota.

"They assist us in analyzing data," Smrcka said. "We've become much more data centric in making business decisions. Historically, we made a lot of decisions through intuition, but being able to look at data strategically changed the way we've approached things. That includes looking at Wi-Fi data, and data from about 100 digital directories that help guests to find their way through the properties."

That data helps MoA make changes to provide customer convenience. For example, one of her analytics team noticed customers were frustrated because the digital maps showed a family restroom in a spot where there was no family restroom.

"It's a simple change for us to make," Smrcka said, "but something we would not have discovered without the data to tell us that."

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