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Cloud adoption helped university prepare for COVID-19, fires

Increased cloud adoption and expanded data protection helped the University of the Pacific deal with a rough stretch of 2020 that included a pandemic and regional wildfires.

While its students were on summer break, University of the Pacific was busily working on IT projects to prepare for the fall semester by bulking up data protection in the cloud.

Knowing more students would be attending classes remotely, the University of the Pacific in northern California increased its cloud adoption. The school updated its website to help students navigate it more easily and streamline the admissions process for new students, moved all its critical applications and workloads to the cloud and bolstered its investment in Rubrik data protection. Meanwhile, COVID-19 and wildfires made implementing these changes more challenging than expected.

Tony CarreroTony Carrero

Tony Carrero, enterprise systems manager at University of the Pacific, said each of the IT projects were crucial for getting the school ready for the fall semester. In September, the refreshed Pacific.edu site was launched, a project that took the entire summer to complete. Carrero said the focus of the site redesign was on returning and prospective students. On the front end, the IT team made the site more mobile-friendly, simplified navigation and streamlined the application process. On the back end, the site switched from AWS to another platform-as-a-service provider and changed its content management system to open-source Drupal.

The University of the Pacific uses the HyFlex course model, which combines in-person and online learning. A handful of students attend classes in person, but the vast majority attend online. Carrero said this prompted him to aggressively identifying what applications and services would be more cost-efficient to run in the cloud. The school expanded its use of Microsoft 365's tools, including Teams and OneDrive, to prepare for increased remote instruction, and classes have also been conducted over Zoom and Webex. Carrero said all the school's top-tier services are cloud-based now, including email, the Pacific.edu website and platform behind it, collaboration tools and the Microsoft 365 suite.

Carrero also expanded the ways professors could capture and save lectures. The University of the Pacific uses Canvas LMS, a SaaS-based learning management system that supports video feed for remote instruction. Carrero said there are other tools and services professors can use now along with Canvas LMS, including a desktop utility that can record lectures and then distribute them to students. He added that some professors even use YouTube to capture and save lectures. Other than the Canvas LMS lectures, everything is saved in a Pure Storage all-flash array, which is protected by Rubrik.

The University of the Pacific first deployed Rubrik in the summer of 2018, but greatly expanded its use to accommodate its fall semester preparations. Carrero said he has started using Rubrik's OneDrive protection because students and professors have come to rely on it more. He has been using Rubrik's CloudOn tool, which replicates on-premises VMs to a public cloud, to put some internal applications in the cloud. He also expanded Rubrik's protection to cover more on-premises storage, which includes locally saved unstructured data such as lecture recordings and surveillance footage.

The University of the Pacific has three data centers in each of its three campuses in Sacramento, San Francisco and Stockton, Calif. They are within 100 miles of one another. Carrero's initial reason for switching to Rubrik from a legacy data protection system was because he wanted faster recovery and insurance against regional disasters. He had previously been doing site-to-site replication between the campuses, which he deemed insufficient in a real disaster scenario.

"Getting away from site-to-site replication was a huge deal. We needed site-to-cloud, to get data out of this area and into off-site immutable backup," Carrero said.

This proved invaluable as wildfires spread through northern California over the past few months. None of the University of the Pacific's campuses were directly damaged by the flames, but some experienced power outages due to the heat. Carrero said because of Rubrik's Live Mount feature creating a rapid-restore cache and the heavily cloud-based nature of the school's IT infrastructure, he was able to handle the triple threat of wildfires, COVID-19 and continued IT overhauls all at once.

Still, Carrero didn't discount how lucky the school's cloud adoption journey had been. When COVID-19 forced schools to close across the U.S. back in March, the University of the Pacific was on spring break, allowing him and his team to get everybody online without disruption. Projects such as overhauling the website and expanding the use of cloud services were already underway, so he wasn't starting from scratch right as the pandemic started. Best of all, many of the IT expansions completed during the pandemic, such as VDI, the website, Canvas LMS and Microsoft 365, are permanent, and will continue to see use even after schools return to normal.

Carrero said with fall semester in session, his next focus is continuing the HyFlex model and preparing for a full-scale return to campus -- even if it's not necessarily happening soon. He is hoping for next year, stating that many of the University of the Pacific's programs, such as its dental school, can't really be taught remotely.

"A lot of our programs are brick and mortar. We would like folks to return, but we want to do so safely," Carrero said.

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