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Texas schools form disaster recovery consortium and collaborate with SAN replication

Two school districts in North Texas have begun cross-replicating to cut costs while shoring up disaster recovery, and say more districts are signing on for protection in case of hurricanes or other problems.

As he watched Hurricane Ike devastate the Texas coast a year ago, Alvarado Independent School District (ISD) executive director of technology services Kyle Berger wished he could help the other schools he knew that were facing a long disaster recovery process.

"I knew of several districts on the coast that were scrambling to get data off site," Berger said. "It would've been nice if I could've said, 'send it to me and I'll hold it for you.' Then I started seeing people were using the same [storage area network] SAN products, spread across our state."

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It was too late to offer relief from Ike, but Berger said Alvarado and another Texas school district, Glen Rose ISD, which both use Compellent StorageCenter SANs, founded a disaster recovery consortium for K-12 school districts.

The Alvarado district is comprised of 3,200 students in six buildings spread over a 96-square mile area. It's been running the Compellent SAN for three years and has a total of 14 TB. It also uses a partition on the Compellent SAN for disk-to-disk data backup and recovery, but had been moving critical data offsite using tape before it found an affordable means of replicating to a secondary site with the consortium.

"We have a 40-megabit Internet pipe, and by 4:30, all of the kids and staff are gone. The connection is empty until about 7 a.m.," Berger said, but a secondary SAN was "not even a consideration" at an estimated $125,000.

Schools decided against hosted disaster recovery

"We also looked at hosted and collocation environments, but those presented additional costs as well, and we worried that if there was a big disaster a collocation company might focus on core businesses like banks before it got around to organizations like ours," he added. "If it's just school-to-school, we know each other's business and don't rely on a third party to get in the mix."

Alvarado began replicating to Glen Rose, approximately 120 miles away, and the two currently have 500 GB of critical data cross-replicated on one another's SANs. Now, the two are in the process of adding two more partners to the consortium in Texas and talking to another school district in Wisconsin about joining.

The consortium also includes districts near Austin and Fort Worth, but Berger did not want to identify them because they're still being integrated into the consortium. The plan is to set up a round-robin data replication system in which Alvarado cross-replicates with Glen Rose as well as with the third district, and the third district will cross-replicate with the fourth.

It helps that all the districts were independently using the same SAN system, which makes cross-replication easier. And because all the consortium members are in education, they follow the same security and legal compliance requirements.

"I know these other schools have to abide by the same regulations I do, and I don't have to worry about them not recognizing the sensitivity of certain data," Berger said.

However, he added, "it's important to have everyone on the same page as far as what is critical data. For us, it's our financial system and our student records, but not email. For schools, email is an important communication tool, but student and financial data are our bread and butter. A lot of districts don't really think about their disaster plans this way."

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