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Secure back up system for Preston College

Willow Starcom : 31 March, 2009  (Application Story)
Willow Starcom to supply fully automated backup and recovery system for Cardinal Newman College in Preston
Willow Starcom has announced a customer win at Cardinal Newman College, Preston, providing reliable, fast and automated backups.

Cardinal Newman College is officially one of the UK's leading further education establishments and has been classified as the highest performing college in Lancashire for the second year running. It is a sixth form college based out of a growing campus in the heart of Preston. The college offers further educational courses ranging from a choice of over 50 'A' Levels, vocational foundation courses and essential skills courses. It has gained Academy and Centre of Excellence status for Sports and Modern & Foreign Languages and has over 2000 students and 200 staff across four main buildings. In recent years, the student population has seen an average annual growth rate of 5%.

In terms of IT infrastructure, the staff and students are supported by around 700 PCs and 30 servers. The college has specialist IT facilities for music, languages, graphic design and has a full digital editing suite for multi-media production. The Network Services Department that supports the college infrastructure consists of a team of five. Within the IT Team, Rick Boyce is the Network Developer in charge of the day-to-day management of the back office, LAN and servers and has ongoing responsibility for improvement and development of the infrastructure.

The popularity and expansion of the college has also reflected in the growth of data on the network. At the same time, staff and student expectations for constantly available services and applications continues to intensify. Increasingly irreplaceable coursework is submitted electronically, placing demands on the network and resulting in restrictions on the amount of data that can be stored by students. Overall, data growth is doubling year on year and this is fuelled in part by the masses of data produced in the multimedia and design facilities and courses, which have experienced rapid student popularity.

Rick is responsible for backup and archiving the growing volumes of data on the network and retrieving it when required. Previously backups were conducted using a LTO-2 Autoloader. Frequency was supposed to be daily, but in practice backups frequently took over 24 hours or would fail mid-job, so the team had to settle for full backups each weekend, supplemented by partial backups throughout the week to secure the critical data held by Exchange, student records and finance departments. The size of a full backup was around 2TB using Symantec's Backup Exec as the backup software. The network supported 30 servers; the majority of which run Microsoft Windows Server 2003. In terms of the storage topology, the college has a fibre channel SAN based on a HP MSA 1000.

The combination of the backup hardware and software seemed to cause irregularities within Cardinal Newman's environment. Tapes would frequently jam and the speed to write to tape was, at best, a very slow and convoluted process that would frequently exceed a 24 hour time frame - when this happened the IT team had no choice but to abort the backup. And when it came to retrieving data that had been successfully stored, due to the nature of the rotating carousel system within the autoloader, frequently all the tapes on the loop had to be searched to locate and restore the correct backup tape. This process was infuriatingly time and resource consuming and fell way short of the streamlined process that the college would like to have.

Cardinal Newman invited local value added resellers to suggest appropriate solutions for an alternative backup solution that would overcome these problems and allow reliable, unattended backups to occur daily. Initially, being a HP house, the IT team considered and reviewed a HP library. After exploratory meetings and using their independent knowledge of the market, the consultants at Willow Starcom highlighted that there were alternative solutions which provided additional functionality and an attractive price point. Working closely with the internal IT team, the Willow Starcom consultants proposed a Tandberg Data StorageLibrary T40 with two LTO-4 drives offering fibre channel connectivity. A detailed proof of concept began including visits and endorsements to other StorageLibrary/Willow Starcom college reference sites. The resultant recommendations proved to be commanding for the Cardinal Newman team - they were able to achieve an enhanced, scalable solution buying Tandberg Data equipment at an excellent price point. The value in the independent advice escalated Willow Starcom into trusted storage advisor status.

The team at Willow Starcom did not simply base the Cardinal Newman solution on cost savings alone. There were other compelling reasons behind the decision to recommend the Tandberg Data StorageLibrary. It's small 4U form factor was attractive in the college server room where space is at a premium (the IT Department will be relocating to a new data centre as part of the College's estates renewal programme.) The performance was attractive too - using the latest LTO-4 technology meant that the college has to change tapes for offsite archiving far less frequently as the capacity is much higher. As the StorageLibrary T40 contains two LTO-4 drives reading and writing data has proved far quicker. It also allows several operations to be conducted simultaneously, for instance a backup and restore from separate sets of tapes.

As Authorised Service Providers for Tandberg Data, the installation was simple and fast and was performed onsite in a single day by Willow Starcom's engineers. In fact, the college was impressed to see that much of the StorageLibrary had been pre-configured and tested at Willow Starcom's Chorley HQ, so the installation of the library and the BakBone NetVault software went really smoothly, with the StorageLibrary talking to file servers on the fibre channel SAN within a few hours.

With the system fully functional, the time savings have quickly become apparent. Previously tape exchange was a long process, taking ½ hour each day on the daily backup to switch tape sets. With the StorageLibrary, tape exchange is really fast - in fact, Rick reckons a weeks worth of backup tapes can be exchanged within a couple of minutes using the T40's 8 slot Import / Export magazine.

When it comes to future capacity and expansion, Willow Starcom have provided the college with a full belt-and-braces solution. Not only does the StorageLibrary offer one of the greatest capacities in its class but it allows the college to easily expand. Rick noted, "We wanted Willow Starcom to put in place a solution that we would not outgrow and would last the college for at least the next 3 to 5 years. Our previous capacity requirement was close to 2TB, but since the storage restrictions have been eased, we are already close to 4TB on the network, but that really doesn't concern us. Through the installation we can just keep increasing capacity as and when we need to - Willow Starcom just provide additional Capacity on Demand - in fact, we can scale up to 64TB should we ever need to."

Management is also easier. Gone are the headaches associated with the previous system. Also gone are the days of speculating if a backup had actually taken place; or indeed if the backup windows had stretched so far into the working day that it would have to be aborted. Rick noted "We understood from Willow Starcom that the changes using the StorageLibrary for management would be significant. This has proved to be the case. Its error notification automatically flags if anything is amiss, and we have found the GUI really user-friendly. Our job is now really just one of monitoring."

Complete daily backups are now an established, reliable routine. With the StorageLibrary's performance, daily backups are reliably achieved each and every night, within a 6-hour timeframe (that's a quarter of the previous backup window). In terms of throughput, what used to be achieved in minutes is achieved near instantaneously in seconds.

For archiving, as with the old system, all tapes are stored in a separate on-site location in a secure, fireproof archive; but tapes are now simply located via accurate bar coding supplied by NetVault backup software recommended by Willow Starcom. So retrieval is reliable and seamless.

The real test of any proposed system comes with recovery in real life conditions. Rick was pleased to note; "The recommended combination of the Tandberg StorageLibrary and BakBone's NetVault software has proved for extremely reliable restore operations. Both restores of accidentally deleted documents and even entire drives has proved to be extremely quick and hassle free. " he continues. "A recent power failure caused by nearby building work left the data within the StorageLibrary completely intact and backup operations resumed seamlessly once power was restored."

Rick surmises, "In conclusion, what we have experienced with the Willow Starcom solution is a powerful, tailored, but not overly complex, encompassing system that effectively manages the whole backup process for us."

Further independent endorsement of the solution came at the end of 2008, when the Willlow Starcom/Tandberg Data installation at Cardinal Newman was voted by readers of the SNS Magazine as the SME Project of the Year. Icing on the cake for all involved!

Willow Starcom Solution overview:

StorageLibrary T40 with 2 x LTO-4 Fibre Channel drives
BakBone NetVault backup software
Fibre channel SAN with a HP MSA 1000
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