Campuses take innovative approach to disaster planning

Servers could take weeks to repair and replace after an earthquake.

West Coast higher-education technology leaders begrudgingly admit it: An earthquake wouldn’t be a temporary inconvenience—a bad trembler could knock out IT infrastructure for weeks, unless the school has a partner.

IT officials from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., and Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., announced May 16 that they would host backup computer equipment for their partner school, allowing either campus to access student, faculty, and course information in hours rather than weeks.

Research universities and state schools often have similar backup arrangements in place with other state colleges and universities. These institutions store each other’s data on backup servers hundreds of miles from campus, ensuring that a school can operate in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Many schools rely on what is known as an “iron mountain” approach to data recovery: Storing digital tapes loaded with vital campus data, and paying a company tens of thousands annually to store and maintain those electronic records. After an emergency, those tapes can’t be accessed until campus servers have been restored.

The insular culture of liberal arts colleges has left many small campuses vulnerable to worst case scenarios—especially schools on or near West Coast earthquake fault lines.

Campus IT decision makers said having to shut down a school for several weeks while the school’s technology infrastructure is rebuilt could be a deathblow for some colleges.

“Liberal arts colleges live and die by their administrative systems,” said William Morse, chief technology officer at Puget Sound. “If you can’t do that, you can really cease to exist very quickly. … This is a step in the right direction that a lot of liberal arts colleges should take a close look at.”

The Puget Sound-Pomona partnership might be the first of its kind, officials said. A natural disaster likely wouldn’t impact both schools, since more than 1,100 miles separates the University of Puget Sound and Pomona.

Each campus will store the other’s information on servers that would preserve eMail and website functions, financial services, campus membership and identity data, and course details.

Researchers at the Educause Center for Applied Research (ECAR) wrote in a recent report that the lack of colleges and universities with alternate site partnerships was “worrisome.”