Florida Department of Education builds plans for disaster and recovery

Florida's DOE took steps to preserve data in case of a hurricane.
Florida's DOE took steps to preserve data in case of a hurricane.

The Florida Department of Education (DOE) serves as the single repository of education data from school districts, community colleges, universities, and independent post-secondary institutions throughout the state. In addition to tracking student performance across varying education sectors, the DOE supplies more than 2.6 million students, 3,800 public schools, and 318,000 full-time staff with the necessary supports and services, and serves more than 180,000 teachers in the state.

The Challenge: Build a Recovery Infrastructure that Protects Against Natural Disasters and Eliminates Cost Inefficiencies

The DOE is primarily responsible for the statistical analysis and funding activities of 67 school districts within the state of Florida. For more than 30 years, the department’s Education Data Center (EDC) has been a repository of collected and analyzed statistical-based data about students, staff, test scores, facilities, buses, and more.

“Our proximity to the Gulf of Mexico put us at high risk of hurricane exposure,” says Ted Duncan, EDC bureau chief. “Although we haven’t been hit by a hurricane recently, we do have experience with the damage they cause. In 1984, Hurricane Kate came through Tallahassee and took out power for a week and a half. Our building is rated to withstand a Category One hurricane. If a Category Two or higher hurricane came through, our data center would not survive. In an instant, our education system could lose years’ worth of critical data. We needed a stronger disaster recovery plan that would protect our data and allow us to be back online in minutes or hours, instead of weeks or months.”

In preparation for a disaster, the DOE was paying an annual maintenance fee to SunGard to reserve equipment in their facilities. Duncan realized there were significant cost inefficiencies in that approach and saw an ideal opportunity to save money and still acquire the necessary DR technology and functionality.

“The problem with the SunGard approach was that we were reserving an opportunity,” says Duncan. “If a disaster occurred and SunGard ran out of capacity while we’re fifth in line, we’re just out of luck We were paying close to $120,000 annually for the ability to recover a small percentage of systems for 30 days. If we needed to be at their site longer than 30 days, it would cost several hundred thousand more. In a real-life scenario where a hurricane destroys our building, it’s not realistic to be fully recovered and out of their site within 30 days.”

Taking DR In-House Provided Freedom and Flexibility

“Looking at the numbers, we realized that building our own offsite recovery center would cost less than SunGard and would give us more functionality,” continues Duncan. “There was a lot of freedom and flexibility in this approach. It put us in the driver’s seat to reduce our costs and pick and choose our systems. We could test anytime and replicate data and systems to have them on standby mode. If an issue such as a power outage or water intrusion occurred, we could run systems at our DR site and still access the necessary data and applications to be productive. We became owners at that point, and investing in the site really gave us the opportunity for ROI.”

The Florida DOE evaluated offerings from different vendors, including InMage. InMage’s Scout software combines disaster recovery, local backup, and application failover in a single, easy to deploy and manage platform that provides comprehensive recovery capabilities that can restore lost data and/or failed applications at remote sites within minutes.

“We wanted a vendor that could grow with our needs,” continues Duncan. “We researched hardware and OS-level replication products, but in both cases, the cost was prohibitive and we didn’t feel we’d get the personalized service that we would get from a midsized vendor like InMage. InMage’s solution was perfectly aligned with what we were trying to do from both a functionality and budget perspective. And we wouldn’t be viewed as just another number out of thousands and thousands of customers. If we had special needs, InMage would be able to address them.”

InMage Scout:  Long Distance DR Plus Improved Local Recovery and Administrative Operations

The Education Data Center implemented InMage on its Windows file server and SQL applications, and is in the process of expanding its use to Exchange servers.

“InMage really fit the bill in two different ways,” says Duncan. “Early on in the demo process, we saw InMage as an alternative to current backup and restore processes for users. Instead of using tape backup, which is time-consuming and unreliable, we are now using InMage to eliminate the impact of backup operations on production servers and to provide rapid, reliable recovery with minimal data loss.  The decreased reliance on tape also frees up a significant amount of time that we were previously spending on tape handling.”

“InMage also works well for the day-to-day operational aspect of running a data center,” Duncan adds.

“Although disaster recovery was the primary driver for the implementation, we’ve really been able to leverage InMage to optimize a number of other administrative operations as well.  Now, we can easily and quickly move applications to minimize the impact of daily operations like server maintenance, and we can provide immediate access to current copies of production data for reporting and test purposes without impacting production in any way. In my experience, it’s the accumulation of small events that cause the most downtime. That’s why InMage’s flexibility really shines, because it’s useful on a day to day basis.”

Another key benefit for the EDC was InMage’s ability to operate in heterogeneous environments.

“The product’s architecture offers a lot of flexibility, and we are taking full advantage of its rich functionality across different hardware,” says Duncan. “We have a lot of diversity here, so we didn’t want to buy a product that would lock us into one particular vendor. That could severely drive up our costs and limit our ability to grow in the future. Ease of implementation and operation were other benefits. We had plenty of onsite support from InMage’s team, and the service has been highly personalized. I can pick up the phone and call the CEO if I need to, but there’s always a person who’s familiar with our setup to answer our questions.”

“I believe we’re ahead of the curve with technology,” concludes Duncan. “As a department, the DOE is ranked pretty high for data collection activities. After expending the time, effort, and resources to collect, store, and analyze data, it would be shortsighted not to protect it from unforeseen events, whether it’s a system failure or a hurricane.  InMage was an ideal fit for our disaster recovery plan. Now that we’ve established our own DR site and are using InMage to replicate data, we have a solid disaster and operational recovery infrastructure in place that we leverage every single day.”

Eric Burgener is vice president of marketing for InMage Systems. Ted Duncan is bureau chief with the Florida DOE’s Education Data Center, a repository of collected and analyzed statistical-based data about students, staff, test scores, facilities, buses, and more.

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