When COVID-19 triggered lockdowns, it also triggered a reassessment of Moraine Valley Community College's backup infrastructure for Dennis Sage, the college's director of infrastructure and network services.
MVCC had relied on tape backups for almost a decade, a process that could take Sage's IT staff 30 hours per week to manage. But as the pandemic ushered in remote work and schooling, it also made tape backups untenable. A more distributed, hands-off backup technology was needed -- a change that paved the way toward a more cohesive cloud storage strategy.
"[The tape drives] were getting old enough to enroll in classes here," Sage said. "It was one of those things where you lit some incense and said a prayer before they started up."
Replacing an old tape system with a new tape system would have cost $10,000, according to Sage. Instead, his team looked to find a product that wouldn't break the department's budget and would help reclaim time wasted on tape backups.
Dennis SageDirector of infrastructure and network services, Moraine Valley Community College
Sage ultimately selected a data storage and management combination using Rubrik, a cloud data management service, with Wasabi, a cloud object storage provider. The combination would eliminate the need for tape backups and enable the college to shrink its overall data center footprint, Sage said.
"It was about what direction we were going to go with cloud storage," Sage said, "I've been around this enough times that there aren't many systems I'm a fanboy of."
Rewind on tape headaches
Located in Palos Hills, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, MVCC has a total enrollment of 24,182 students. The college's IT department totals about 50 staff members with most working the college's help desk for faculty, staff and students. Sage, who reports to the CIO, said about 10 employees report directly to him with two focused on IT infrastructure and data backup.
Sage said the process of backing up to tape was cumbersome and time-consuming. The college also relied on a relationship with Iron Mountain, which would pick up the tapes for off-site vaulting once per week. Restorations in case of accidental deletions took a minimum of four hours, he added, but usually cost one of his employees an entire day of work.
"I have a pretty tight number of staff, and they all multitask," he said. "My staff person responsible for backup was spending 30-plus hours a week doing backups before. That's dropped off by a factor of 10."
Difficulties with physical backups were exacerbated during the pandemic lockdowns throughout the spring and summer of 2020, which required Sage's staff to coordinate no-contact tape exchanges with Iron Mountain. The slow restoration times of physical media alongside the pandemic challenges made cloud storage appealing to Sage.
"This was a two-headed monster," he said. "Realistically, you're looking at anywhere from eight to 24 hours to restore anything. To me, that just wasn't acceptable any longer."
Sage chose Rubrik over other competing services at the suggestion of the IT department's technology reseller, CDW, and after testing other services from Veritas Technologies and Veeam.
"There are solutions now that are fully cloud-based, but we wanted something that still had an on-premises component to it," he said. "Cloud's fine as long as you can get to it."
After choosing Rubrik Cloud Data Management, as it offered both a local hardware appliance along with the capability to easily view data locally and in the cloud, he selected Wasabi cloud storage for off-site backups with its S3 compatibility. This feature made Wasabi storage compatible with Rubrik's archiving and snapshot features.
Sage had considered using object storage from AWS and Microsoft Azure. The varying fees for hot or cloud storage tiers, however, created a "Goldilocks" problem for data access across departments and users, he said. He also chafed at the mandatory length of contracts, normally around five years -- especially on the tight budgets of public education, which often favor predictability and can fluctuate in funding year to year. Wasabi's option for fixed one-year contracts became an attractive feature.
"[I thought], for the price, let's give it a shot," Sage said. "My thought process was, it's not going to be any worse than tape. Even if they're slow, it's better than a four-hour turnaround time from Iron Mountain."
MVCC initially signed up for a 160 TB storage contract with Wasabi using its Reserve Capacity Storage and has since renewed for another year.
Since implementing the Rubrik and Wasabi combination in 2020, MVCC's IT department has sunset its tape backup process and system. Instead, data is stored on two SANs -- one for active use and the other for backup -- with an additional backup duplicate of the network stored on Wasabi.
Sage said the snapshot and immutability capabilities of Rubrik and Wasabi give the same level of protection as tape without the need for manual labor.
"The integration with Wasabi and Rubrik has been amazing," Sage said, giving kudos to the MVCC IT staff for making the switch during the pandemic.
Although tape could have continued, Sage said modern uses for backups demand quick turnaround times for end users. In the future, MVCC will expand its bandwidth and internet capabilities for faster user speeds and increased student Wi-Fi access, which Sage expects Rubrik and Wasabi are capable of accommodating.
Sage suggested other IT shops should consider end user needs when making purchasing decisions. For him, Wasabi cloud storage offered faster recovery from disasters and help to minimize the friction that students, faculty or staff might experience getting back up to speed again.
"Rubrik and Wasabi are part of a longer-term strategy here," he said. "If you're primarily on premises, take a step back to not just look at what you have, but what do you need to serve your customers or your clients."
Tim McCarthy is a journalist living on the North Shore of Massachusetts. He covers cloud and data storage news.