Cloud storage for schools

18 Feb 2012
Cloud storage for schools

Cloud Storage is the smarter way to share and back up data. Jamie Stephens helps you find the right service for your school

Last year, Google’s then CEO Eric Schmidt claimed that the world generates the same amount of information every two days as we previously had between the dawn of civilisation and 2003. To be precise, he claimed it was around five exabytes of data (that’s about five billion gigabytes to you and me).

The accuracy of his claim has been debated, but it still raises important questions: what’s the most efficient way to store, organise and share information? Where should we store it? It’s a question for those of us in education, too. Education isn’t immune to this staggering growth in data. More and more schools are teaching courses that involve picture or video editing, creating animations or composing music, all of which require a vast amount of storage space. As in most areas of IT, much has been made of moving storage into “the cloud”, but what do we look for if we want to move in this direction?

The concept of cloud storage has been floating around for a while now, but many of us are confused about what the term actually means. In some cases, cloud storage is just that; a storage area on a file server located in a remote data centre. However, cloud storage really gets interesting when it becomes more than that: used properly, it can handle the needs facing schools every day.

Remote backup
One of the biggest uses of cloud storage is remote backup. Cloud backup solutions work in much the same way as traditional backup, but the difference is that the data is being moved to a server over the internet, rather than copied onto tape. The big advantage is that the data is well away from your site, meaning you’re protected in the event of fire or flood. It also doesn’t rely on any one individual having to remember to change the tape and take it home each day. You also have the added convenience of being able to restore without having the media physically present. You can log on and restore a file with no switching of tapes required.

The main practical issue you’ll encounter in backing up to the cloud is that of speed. Backing up vast amounts of data to the cloud takes time. The main factor is the upload speed of your broadband connection, but watch out for things such as data throttling (where your speed will be cut after a certain amount of data has been uploaded) or capping (a limit on the amount you can transfer at all). Most school broadband connections should be okay, but it’s worth checking with your ISP before you sign up for a service. It’s also worth looking at your current backup strategy. A full backup each night uses more space and bandwidth, so you may want to consider moving to incremental daily backups (where only the changes are backed up), and carrying out a full backup once a week instead.

Although important, download speed isn’t as vital as you’d think. In most cases, restore operations will be fairly small, and in the event of a complete disaster, some companies will send out the data to you on physical media. Despite this, it may be a good idea to use the cloud as an extension to your backup strategy, rather than a replacement. Back up any vital, timely data locally, as a good backup on-site should be quicker to get back up and running.

Data security
From a non-technical perspective, the main issue you need to think about is data security, and the legality of storing data in the cloud. In education, as in any industry, we’re legally required to ensure the integrity and security of our data, and are bound by the Data Protection Act.

Hosting companies based in the UK should be fully compliant with this – and likewise, companies in the EU will be covered under equivalent legislation. Data hosted outside the EU isn’t subject to the same restrictions, so you may want to treat it with caution.

Data stored off-site is also likely to be more susceptible to outside attacks, so make sure your provider has adequate security measures in place. Look for strong encryption, both where the data is stored and when it’s transferred between your site and the data centre. SSL encryption will cover the latter, and look for 256-bit Blowfish or AES encryption on the server.

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