It may not be the most exciting but it’s arguably one of the most important parts of your school’s ICT programme. Storage comes in all shapes, sizes and solutions. David Kinane investigates your options.
In most classrooms today there will be a range of relatively inexpensive devices that produce high-quality digital content. Things like digital cameras, iPods, video cameras, netbooks and increasingly tablets can be seen in the hands of students all of whom are happily creating vast volumes of content that the school has to store. Once this content is on the school’s servers, it has to decide what needs to be accessible, what should be backed up and what should be archived.
Moore’s law states that roughly every 18 months the speed or capacity of technology doubles and at same time the price of that same technology halves. In practical terms, this means that faster processors, larger hard drives and more RAM in a system has enabled software developers to create ever more complex programmes that enable users to create vastly richer content. Compare, for example, what Photoshop 4 enabled people to create with what can be achieved with a copy of Adobe’s CS6 today. This advance in program complexity not only means that application software has got larger but the files they enable a user to produce are far larger – and all of this (software included) has to be managed by the school system.
What options does a school have today with managing its data? Should a school manage all of its own data? Should it outsource data management? What are the implications if it does? What are the benefits? What are the costs? Add into that mix the advent of high-speed internet connections and cloud-based storage solutions and a school has many variables to deal with when considering how to manage its data.
Separating static and dynamic data
Data can be roughly split into two types, static data and dynamic data. Dynamic data is the content we create, open, edit, share, etc., using the programs that facilitate that creation. The contents of a database are an example of dynamic data but the program that enables us to enter the data is static. Primarily, it’s the dynamic data that we want to manage and store.
Traditionally, schools have relied on a blend of arrays of disk drives on servers and back-up tapes as their main strategy to store and manage digital content. Hard disk drive capacity, the amount of data a single drive can hold, continues to increase exponentially. So it would appear that, in order to manage their growing data volumes, schools just need to increase the total amount of drive space they have on their systems. However, the issue of the ever-increasing data volumes produced in a school is that this growth needs to be managed and that overhead has a cost. The cost has to be measured the in terms of the cost of purchasing sufficient resources to store, back up and manage the data, plan for the continued expansion of storage, and also the time factor of the staff charged with overseeing the management of that data.
Investing in server capacity
Depending on how much a school wants to invest in its servers, each model has a maximum capacity of physical bays to mount hard drives in. Once that capacity has been reached on a single machine, then another server is required just to store the data being produced. Potentially, this is an expensive solution for simply managing digital content. In addition, depending on how the server has been configured to manage the data in the first place, it can also impact on how much actual storage a server is able to offer. For example, most servers have been configured with a RAID system (Redundant Array of Independent Disks). RAID 5 is a striped array. What this means is that although your server may have three 1TB drives in it giving 3TB of hard disk drive storage, 30 per cent of each drive is given over copying part of the other two drives so in effect there is only 2TB of storage capacity on the server.
In a school that does not have many students or where the growth in data has not started to grow at exponential rates, a server system that offers storage in multiple terabyte amounts should be sufficient in the short term. But, as with all things digital, it should be closely monitored and expansion planned for.
NAS is an elegant solution
Now that many schools have excellent and high-speed networks a NAS (Network Attached Storage) is a potentially elegant solution for data storage issue and avoids the requirement to purchase additional servers for storage. A NAS is a large array of computer disks in a box that has limited computer functionality and is used as local storage for large files away from the central servers. What a NAS offers a school is a much larger storage capacity for data files that students and teachers create and want to access regularly. This has benefits for network performance, too; it means that files can be delivered to workstations without adding extra load to the central servers. To the user it appears that the network is delivering files faster, especially large files, to the local workstation. Additional hardware on a network however means that it has to be managed, the unit itself has to be maintained and its replacement planned for, all of which equates into a budgetary overhead adding to the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership).
Looking to the cloud
Schools now have the option of looking to cloud-based services for the management of their data. Many now have their own Learning Management System (LMS) and, with the advent of high-speed internet access, they have the opportunity to either host this content locally or to have it hosted for them in the cloud. Each solution has its benefits and its drawbacks. Locally hosted is where a school-based LMS requires that the machine that stores content has to be managed by the school, with all of the data growth and back up issues associated with that, plus managing the planned service life cycle of the physical machine, again all of which has a cost to the school.
The alternative is that the same service is hosted outside of school and is accessed via the school’s internet connection. In effect, a cloud-based LMS is a rental agreement between the school and the host, the amount of space used by the school is rented out to the school for a monthly fee. The school benefits because the management of the data, the back-ups, the updates to the program software, and the management of hardware upgrades are all managed by the external host.
The drawbacks of this solution schools should consider are that if their connection to the internet is interrupted, it will have no access to its data for as long as that interruption lasts. With a single internet connection there is no redundancy in the system to manage this kind of interruption. Therefore, if schools want to move their data to the cloud they might have to consider having multiple connections in order to ensure the maximum ‘up time’ as possible. Of course, having multiple internet connections would be an additional cost.
Free cloud-based services
Many schools are opting to use free cloud-based services for their day-to-day document creation and the management of their email. Solutions such as Windows 365 and Google Apps are offering such services. The likes of YouTube and image sharing sites such as Flickr, Picasa, Photobucket, and so on, are providing almost limitless storage space.
By moving content creation capacity to the cloud, schools are effectively reducing the required storage capacity on their own network. They have also outsourced the management of the data and hardware rotations to their host services. Another benefit to the school is that email and documents are always accessible from anywhere, at any time. A solution such as this removes the requirement for a school to set up a remote access function to systems from outside of the school.
The downside is a reliance on the internet connection – if it’s interrupted there’s no access to files whilst the interruption occurs. Also, security and access to files will always need to be managed. With regard to viruses, external hacks, and the like, these are always a threat but with enterprise hardware and security being used to enable cloud services, in all likelihood they’re more secure than school based ones.
Creating a blended storage solution
What a server-based network and fast internet access offer to schools in reality is the opportunity to create a blended solution to their data management. Whether a school uses its own resources to manage data or outsource this responsibility to cloud-based services, each solution has its benefits, each has its detractions and both have their costs. In a blended solution, a school would want to keep large local files, such as media files, photos, videos, etc., stored on its servers as the data costs of pushing and pulling data up and down from a cloud-based service would increase the total bandwidth that the school has to pay for. The impact of many large files being downloaded simultaneously via the internet could also affect the speed performance of the entire connection for all users within a school.
For schools considering using the internet as a solution for their storage issues, speed and the cost of data will be the biggest considerations. Whilst having data stored in the cloud has appeal for being always available anytime, anywhere, and provides convenience to users wishing to access their data outside of school, schools need to also consider how convenient that same service might be perceived by those same users from within their school. If a school’s bandwidth (its connection speed) is too low then the convenience offered by a cloud storage solution will be mitigated by the perception of speed or lack of it by users. If a school has a 10Mbps internet connection speed and 500 concurrent users, each of them gets a very thin slice of that speed and the network gets a thumbs down for performance. Once Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) is in place, this will cease to be an issue. However, we have yet to see what the data costs for a high-speed connection will actually be – when the issue may move from one of user perception to financial impact.
Balance between convenience and cost
The storage solution a school devises has to be balanced between the convenience the cloud can potentially offer to them when compared to the costs of maintaining data internally. A school will need to ascertain that it has a robust enough internet connection (or connections) to deliver content efficiently for its users at maximum capacity. It will also have to consider whether the security offered by the online systems they use will be sufficient to protect their data. It’s doubtful that either option will save a school money as data growth is the only constant and, as such, a school will have to plan to continually manage an ever increasing mountain of staff and student-generated data.
DAVID KINANE IS A SPECIALIST ICT CONSULTANT AND WRITES FOR INTERFACE MAGAZINE.
© INTERFACE Magazine, August 2012
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