A lesson in backup and disaster recovery for the UK’s top universities

Dan Middleton, vice president of Veeam UK&I, shares insight and advice on how universities can manage their data to ensure their resources meet data demands of 2020

Students have come to expect a compelling educational experience that reflects their increasingly digital lives. For tutors, delivering on these expectations requires the latest digital tools, resources and support — any time, any place.

These demands have created a perfect storm for modern education. Higher education institutions are now becoming hugely dependant on data. Lots of data. Knowing how to manage, protect and access this information is key to delivering on expectations for both tutors and students alike.

But effective data management and protection is easier said than done. With this in mind, we issued a Freedom of Information request to the UK’s top 100 universities to assess how they’re coping with this responsibility, and how confident they really are with ensuring data remains available, protected and recoverable at all times.

The real impact of an unplanned outage 

We found that these top UK universities experience nearly a week (6 days and 21 hours) of unplanned downtime a year on average. That’s a lot of accumulative time for students and employees to be without access to crucial resources, tools, or even their own personal data.

This downtime highlights a failure to formalise data backup processes or conduct testing on a regular basis, which is impacting each university’s ability to provide an ‘always-on’ service and mitigate data loss. We found that only 12% of universities produce a formal data capacity planning report. Of those, a mere 3% update it on a regular basis.

This means that a vast majority of universities risk being unaware of their infrastructure reaching its limit or no longer being fit for purpose. We found 8% of universities had no record of their IT outages, and 15% have no record of how long outages last. More work is needed to ensure IT teams have all the data they need to ensure data remains available across universities’ digital infrastructure.

As well as minimising and preventing unplanned downtime, institutions need full digital backups of their data that allows them to recover systems in minutes. By establishing more formalised procedures on testing data backup, higher education institutions will be able to ensure that data always remains available and better prepare IT teams to mitigate cyber-attacks.

But testing remains limited, meaning institutions aren’t aware of the weakness in their systems — vulnerabilities that could reduce availability and severely impact their ability to restore data.

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Taking responsibility

The majority of universities universally acknowledge their responsibility for storing sensitive data – whether that’s information on students, research or IP data. The threats of IT outages and cyber-attacks are constant. While universities have not necessarily succumbed to major cyber breaches, without formalised testing processes they will be left vulnerable in the long-term.

Of the universities surveyed, 15% manage their data backups in-house. The requirements and demands universities have on their critical data can be very different between institutions, so what might be a good fit in one environment may not be best suited for another. Many universities, for instance, are battling internal resource challenges, which means turning to a cloud partner to manage their backups for them is more cost-effective.

There’s more that needs to be done for these education institutions to effectively manage their data and ensure availability, especially as the UK looks to a future that may see more students study remotely. This in turn increases the potential for both malicious cybercriminal activity and accidental data loss as students and tutors are not protected by the full array of measures they might have had whilst working on-campus. Disaster recovery planning is crucial and ensuring that processes for are fit-for-purpose includes outlining and enforcing a regular cadence of robust testing.

A threat to data availability, integrity or security is also a threat to digital transformation. Institutions must create an IT strategy that will help deliver against their future objectives – from backup and recovery, to orchestration and automation, and cloud mobility.

Next steps

While driving cost efficiencies remains a priority, institutions need to continually improve their digital user experience to remain effective, agile and competitive. One key step towards digital transformation is to identify how IT can better support institutions to achieve their strategic business objectives. Universities must continue to embrace new technologies – whether it’s increasing e-learning opportunities, better managing student finance or ensuring student-faculty member confidentiality.

Ensuring data availability is no mean feat and it’s especially important considering the escalating risks of cybercrime. Universities hold more data than ever before. As they break down the walls of silos, they must ensure they have robust defences. This includes putting rigorous testing processes in place to ensure vulnerabilities are eliminated and systems stay secure.


You might also like: 7 top tips to keep your data secure


 

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