Data explosion poses storage challenges to universities

Incoming Michigan State CIO discusses the data storage challenges universities have to deal with and how to address them with cloud storage.

Demands for data can be incessant with the influx of online education offerings, analytics and expanding levels of research at large universities.

Joanna Young, who is due to start a new job as vice president and CIO at Michigan State University later this month, took time to discuss with how today's data explosion poses data storage and records retention challenges to higher education during this week's CIO Summit, hosted by Extreme Networks, in Foxboro, Mass. Just prior to taking the job at Michigan State, Young was assistant VP and CIO at the University of New Hampshire (UNH).

Young said the drive for data is "on a hockey stick projection" and requires a CIO to employ a variety of strategies, from NAS to cloud storage. "What I find is that there's no one, two or sometimes even three sizes that fit all the needs," she said.

Excerpts from the interview with TechTarget are below.

When you think of the data explosion and the unrelenting need for data, what types of data are you dealing with? Unstructured data?

Young: The unstructured data on the video side. Let me give you an example. We increasingly have classes that are delivered not totally in the classroom and not totally online. And faculty are increasingly either producing their own content or using content that is video based. So, I'm a student, and I want to review faculty-produced content or some other content, and I know that I wasn't real clear on the part of that content that had to do with the quality of water in Great Bay, [for example]. You have to think about, as a CIO, how are you going to make the experience for that student such that he or she can easily find the content they need to have at 2 o'clock in the morning. On the flip side, you have to make it easy for the faculty to put together all the content they need for their students.

The goal of the CIO should try to be to help the faculty be more effective and efficient in terms of how they're putting together all this content -- not say to them, "Oh well, now you're going to have to spend two additional hours a week because you have to have all these technology tools to use because this is now what the students expect."

If you think about that from the storage perspective, you need more storage … and we need to work with a variety of vendors. As a CIO, if you don't have people working for you that understand all the options and how to put them together, it's just not going to work.

What do you see as your greatest challenge from a data storage perspective? Reining in people with one-off solutions? The increasing volume of data?

Young: I always try to avoid words like "rein in." People are going to take the shortest distance between two points to get what they need done. As a CIO, the trick is to say to people, "Here are the options we have available, and here's how we want to work with you." [As well as], "OK, Dr. so and so, who's doing research on x, when you put together these grants; you could have more of that money available for the things that are closer to your research. You don't have to worry about storage. You don't have to worry about servers. Here's how we can provide that for you in a way that's easy for you to use, is going to give you enough space and access that you need, and the type of speed set is OK for you." [You] become a partner and get them to align with you, because I find particularly in higher education, you've got to stick with the carrot approach. The sticks really, really, really don't work.

Where I think the teams that I've had the pleasure of working with have had the most success is when we talk to people and say, "What do you need? How can we help?" And gradually, one or two people have a good experience with maybe a particular storage solution or … a virtual server environment, [and] then that word just spreads.

Where does cloud storage fit in at universities?

Young: Where we were using the cloud at the University of New Hampshire was in the online education space. We had some vendors who provided the storage as part of their solution. Because the video requirements for these online classes are huge -- every week, two to four hours or more worth of video content -- that would have quickly overwhelmed the storage we had on campus. I believe it wasn't economical for me to just keep bringing in storage. So, we looked for SaaS [software as a service] solutions we could do as a package … that's what worked for the University of New Hampshire. Other institutions may be doing different things.

Was elasticity one of the big advantages of cloud storage for you?

Young: Yeah. If you think about it, if you're always doing your own storage, you always have to be staying kind of one step ahead. And there's a lot of operational work that goes into that, whereas if you can use something in the cloud, and it can just expand and contract with you, and you can just pay accordingly, that makes for some efficiency in the Opex.

The one thing I feel compelled to say is that the more you use the cloud, the better your network should be. At the University of New Hampshire, we recognized five years ago that we better be paying attention to our network capacity, both in terms of out to the Internet and our wide-area network as well as on the campus itself. And UNH, with the help of some federal grants, was able to do that.

Universities need secure storage for records and transcripts. Do you put that data in the cloud or keep it on campus?

Young: Currently at UNH, any sensitive data to do with students is not in the cloud. The ERP at the University of New Hampshire is hosted locally. The new platforms coming out for higher education … are cloud-based platforms. So, this is going to bring a new set of interest and challenges. The flip side of that is retention of content. If you have an online course that was delivered in let's say 2012, that's really the intellectual property of the university, of the faculty. How long do you keep that around?

Records retention is a difficult challenge, because the larger "storage closets" that you give people, they're just going to keep filling them up and filling them up and filling them up. It's like your closets at home. Who has a closet that's only 50% full?

So, I think one of the things CIOs have to be careful about is thinking, "Oh well, the cloud, it's cheaper." Somebody else is worrying about a lot of the operations and so on and so forth. And so it can be tempting to just keep throwing this stuff out there. But records retention is extremely important. First of all, you can end up storing a lot of stuff that you don't need and paying for it. You also have to think of the normal issues around Freedom of Information Act requests and things like that.

What is the biggest change in data storage that has made an impact on you as a CIO of an educational institution over the last few years?

Young: I would phrase it as the commoditization of storage. It's so easy for users to store their stuff [in] Amazon, Google [or] Dropbox. The biggest challenge that creates for a CIO is that it may be great for the end user, but all of a sudden your organization's data gets very fragmented. You don't even know where it is. You don't know whether it's secure. Users, even with the best of intentions, may not be cognizant of all of the security things they should be [aware of]. So, I think the biggest challenge is not throttling users from making choices but first making sure that where things are stored is effective -- efficient both in terms of their cost and access -- and secure, and that you could connect all these different pieces.

You asked earlier if everything in the university could be in the cloud. I think if you were going to have a trajectory that was moving toward that, whether you were in higher education or somewhere else, you don't want to be in a situation where you have a bunch of stuff out in a cloud, a bunch of stuff that's not in a cloud and you're having a lot of operational overhead because you've got stuff that needs to integrate into two different places. I've seen that be very difficult.

Have you used service-based private cloud storage?

Young: The University of New Hampshire is part of a university system of New Hampshire, and we do have, if you will, our own private cloud within the university system [with] UNH, Plymouth State, Keene State and Granite State. However, increasingly what I'm seeing in other parts of the country is more higher education, both within states and even between states, banding together on storage solutions, and I think that's going to be very interesting. Internet 2 is putting together a lot of those consortia. It's a higher education research network with a lot of the bleeding-edge aspects of networking. Most higher education, particularly research higher education, is on Internet 2. Increasingly, you're seeing some Internet 2 come up with other IT solutions, including storage.

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