Library Science: Escalating Data Boom Forces Universities to Implement New Storage and Backup Strategies

Universities and other higher education institutions are facing a boom in electronic data storage and backup needs which are forcing them to adjust their information management strategies. The national upsurge in Internet-based research and the increasing popularity of data-intensive studies are just a few significant factors causing stressed-out systems admin personnel to frantically search for terabytes of storage space.

Additionally, mission-critical data, such as administrative, personnel and student records, are now recorded electronically, emphasizing the importance of an expandable, rock-solid-reliable backup system.

"The data boom seen at universities is not unique; rather, it is typical for virtually all computer users, whether large or small, public or private," says Robert Abraham, President of Freeman Reports. "The only practical way to address this growth and backup the immense amount of data being processed today by large institutions, such as universities, is to utilize high-speed automated tape libraries. No alternative solution is as effective or economical."

Bob Covey, Vice President of Qualstar, a manufacturer of tape library systems, says that his company’s educational client base is quickly expanding as IT departments strive to protect more mission-critical information and play catch up with student, faculty and research demands.

"We’re looking at an all-time high in data storage and backup for universities, in terms of volume," he says. "Today’s computer-savvy students are specializing in subjects that require a lot of storage space – graphics design, Web site authoring, engineering. They need somewhere to keep their work besides on their own personal computers. This is just the students’ research work alone; I’m not even counting the mass of data that the administrative offices handle."

Unfortunately, many institutions are learning the hard way that their old systems aren’t up to modern standards, particularly when it comes to backup and archival storage management.

"Too many continue to rely on stand-alone tape drives or simple autoloaders connected via ‘sneakernet’ to protect valuable student and research study data, as well as critical administration information. These techniques simply can’t keep up with the amount of data being generated and present insurmountable media management and control problems," explains Covey.

However, modern automated tape libraries coupled with effective management software offer the distinct capability to greatly reduce human error by insuring that the right tape is always available to restore anything, from a few lost files to complete servers. Automated tape libraries also provide a high level of mechanical reliability, while concurrently providing the latest in tape drive technology in an affordable, scalable package that can back up overloaded servers.

Room to Grow

Automated tape library manufacturers have also focused on enabling their customers to have "room to grow on" by designing units with maximum expandability in mind.

A dramatic example of the benefits of switching to an automated tape library system comes from The School of Engineering at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) – a bustling campus of 11,000 students located on California’s central coast. UCSC generates such an immense volume of research data that the department’s 8 mm tape jukebox system was unable to keep up.

Gary Moro, Senior Systems Manager at UCSC, explains that the data-intensive studies of the school’s various departments continually pushes the storage envelope.

"Our data storage is growing faster than we anticipated," he says. "Right now the School of Engineering has approximately 1,100 students, both graduate and undergraduate, in four departments: computer science, computer engineering, Applied math and statistics, and electrical engineering. Much of their research data is stored on the file servers for those departments – graphics, schematics, etc.

"Currently, we back up about one terabyte. The schedule varies depending on the file system. There are monthly, weekly and daily backups," Moro continues.

Moro says that the sheer volume of the engineering department’s data was choking the old tape system. Slow data transfer speeds meant that complete backups took days, and constant supervision by university personnel was necessary to change tapes and ensure that nothing went awry – meaning labor expenses for UCSC as well.

"The old system was stressed out. It had problems with capacity, holding only 50 gigabytes. IO was also way too slow. The department has several file servers which amount to about 200-plus gigabytes. The old 8 mm drives took several days to backup all this data, and they had to be monitored daily to change the tapes. We could only do 50 GB at a time and then we had to trade out all the tapes. This tape shuffling caused confusion," Moro recalls.

"We needed to extend our tape system used for backing up data from the engineering department. We wanted something that we wouldn’t need to interact with on a daily basis. We also wanted something that could handle AIT tapes."

An evaluation of several backup systems on the market narrowed down to Qualstar tape libraries.

"After looking at four other makes, we chose Qualstar because its mechanics are really good," Moro explains. "We installed a TLS-4660 with three tape drives at the beginning of 1999, and we’re using Veritas backup software. The capacity right now is 1.5 terabytes, but that can be easily expanded by adding more tape slots."

"It gave us more storage capacity and also allows us to expand our library without having to buy a completely new jukebox. Plus, we don’t have to switch tapes," he adds.

Moro reports that their monthly backups now take just over a day, a significant time savings. He also gives the unit a thumbs-up for reliability.

"It performs fine; we’ve had no problems. The mechanism is simple, so there’s not much to go wrong. There haven’t been any alignment errors or problems with the mechanics at all, and it’s used every day. We’ve been running in parallel with our old backup system, and a technician still interacts with the old system twice a week, whereas I haven’t opened the front panel of the Qualstar unit in weeks."

The UCSC School of Engineering plans to upgrade their system to handle future storage increases – an option which Moro says is made easier due to the QS unit’s modular construction.

"We’re going to upgrade from the TLS-4660 to a 46120 – from a 60 to 120-tape unit, which will give us an extra 1.5 terabytes," Moro confirms. "Upgrades are easy. All we have to do is buy some trays and put them in; we don’t have to purchase a complete new system. This allows us to budget for the expansion, and it will save us a big chunk of money when we need to expand in the future."

About the Author: Jason Roberts is a Technical Writer and Editor at Power PR (Torrance, Calif.). He can be reached at (310) 357-4135.