Operating fully or partially online brings with it a number of key data management challenges for higher-ed IT leaders to overcome

Overcoming 3 data management pitfalls of online learning

Operating fully or partially online brings with it a number of key data management challenges for higher-ed IT leaders to overcome

A recent survey of U.S. higher-ed institutions’ reopening plans found that 33 percent would be operating completely or primarily online while an additional 27 percent would be following a hybrid model of online and in-person learning. With the shift to greater online learning, colleges and universities must avoid three key data management pitfalls.

Failing to back up Microsoft 365

Microsoft 365 enables people to work anywhere without organizations having to host their emails, files, and content management in their own infrastructure. With the rise of remote work, Microsoft 365 has become even more prevalent. However, Microsoft 365 doesn’t provide comprehensive and long-term backup, and 74 percent of Microsoft 365 users have no data protection strategy in place. As professors upload content to shared folders and students access their Microsoft 365 accounts, projects, and other assets both remotely and on campus, files can easily be deleted or hit with malware, often with little or no chance of recovery.

Related content: 4 ways object storage powers higher-ed initiatives

Microsoft Office 365 offers geo-redundancy, which protects data from site or device failure, but this does not constitute a true data backup. If data is accidentally deleted or maliciously attacked, Microsoft 365 offers limited recovery options. While it does provide basic recycling bin capabilities, Microsoft 365 only stores deleted files for a limited period. Beyond that time frame, the data is permanently deleted. Worse, if a user is accidentally deleted from Microsoft 365, his/her data is erased entirely from the entire Microsoft 365 network.

University IT teams are ultimately responsible for backing up Microsoft 365 data. To prevent loss of critical data and ensure that students, faculty and staff will always have access to needed files, it is best to provide Microsoft 365 data protection and to store that backup data on a system that is secure, scalable and within the confines of the university’s firewall.

Not deploying ransomware protection

As recently seen with the ransomware attack on UCSF and the resulting $1.14 million ransomware payment, ransomware is a huge threat to colleges and universities. To avoid having to pay large ransoms to access their data, IT teams need to ensure data is protected and that they can restore a clean copy of the data in the event of a ransomware attack. Unfortunately, common methods of defending against ransomware – such as encryption, firewalls, anti-phishing training and password software – often fall short. For the surest protection from ransomware, a copy of the backup data should be made immutable on a WORM-enabled storage system. With WORM, data cannot be changed or deleted for a specific period. This prevents malware from being able to encrypt data and, therefore, removes the ransomware threat. IT teams can restore an unencrypted copy of the data by a simple recovery process if hit by a ransomware attack.

Until recently, achieving WORM protection required manual intervention, such as physically moving a tape copy of data outside of a tape library, or it required a costly storage appliance that supported WORM. However, a few object storage providers have now incorporated a new feature called Object Lock that provides WORM capabilities within a highly cost-effective storage system.

Moving all storage to the cloud

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, universities and data management teams were faced with the challenge of managing an abundance of data – from health science departments generating research data to arts departments archiving video content to on-campus surveillance footage – much of which must be available to access and analyze at any given moment. In addition, universities are responsible for storing personal data on students, faculty, and staff, including names, social security numbers, financial information, medical records, and home addresses. And as institutions have shifted to online or hybrid learning, data management challenges have increased, with more students uploading and accessing files and content remotely. Universities must keep this growing data secure and accessible while adhering to tight IT budgets.

As students prefer the shareability and easy access of cloud services such as Google Drive and Dropbox, universities may consider shifting entirely to a public cloud infrastructure. While using cloud services can facilitate access to data on campus and remotely, moving all storage to the cloud can increase costs and compromise security. Using cloud services allows data outside the university firewall and security domain, putting data at risk of being breached or accessed by third parties. In addition, public cloud services charge unpredictable fees, including storage and data egress fees (usually around 15-20 percent of an organization’s cloud bill) which can introduce uncertainty to a fixed IT budget.

Storing the majority of data on-premises or in a private cloud in a highly scalable platform can cost significantly less than using the public cloud and can also offer universities secure cloud-like file sharing capabilities, without the risk of cloud data breaches. Furthermore, the costs are predictable, and administrators can maintain full control over storage locations and access points to monitor usage.

Looking to the future

As the COVID-19 pandemic has altered the higher education landscape, having the right storage infrastructure in place is essential. By ensuring robust backup for Microsoft 365 data, deploying ransomware protection, and avoiding a complete move to the public cloud, university data management teams can securely manage growing workloads, adhere to budget constraints and give students the data accessibility needed to succeed with online and hybrid learning.

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