Outwood Trust Academies opts for ‘cloud-like technology, without the cost’

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood February 19, 2020
The data of 30,000 students across 32 schools is much better protected now, according to assistant director of technology, Matthew Lister.

Image of students at Outwood Academies school

Established in 2009, Outwood Grange Academies Trust is a multi-academy trust that operates 32 schools with Academy status across northern England and the East Midlands. An exempt charity, regulated by the Department for Education, it works as an educational charity and not-for-profit sponsor of primary, junior and secondary schools of this type and so is regulated by the Department for Education rather than the Charity Commission. All its schools are funded by the Department for Education on a per-pupil basis, the same way as maintained schools.

Essentially, then, Outwood Trust provides a range of support services to these Academy schools. So that’s over 30,000 students who have records of attendance and educational progress that you’d really want to think were being properly protected. But until five years ago, admits its assistant director of technology, Matthew Lister, that unfortunately wasn’t the case:

I've been working for the Trust now for five years, and when I came on board the director of technology identified that we had no effective Disaster Recovery (DR) strategy at all. There were real concerns with our backup and DR, and back then we only had six Academies. 

There were a lot of inconsistencies throughout those Academies, with different backup technologies that they used—almost every single Academy had a different piece of software, some had tape, some had hard drives. If I'm being honest, there was no DR plan, plus we couldn’t rely on our old system to do successful restores, and tests took hours.

Sounds less than ideal, but you might ask, well, why would you need a DR plan if you're a school?

It’s the same as any other organisation; we need business continuity to be able to continue teaching our students. In every single Academy we will back up the critical data, especially the management information system data, but also all the student files and records as well as everything to do with HR, payroll, all that data.

That’s critical data that is necessary for a student to go through their school life and for the school to run. I went to a school last week that is not one of our Academies and very little of this important information was being backed up there, and there are still schools that have no backup which I find almost staggering in this day and age.

So what did Lister do to fix this problem? As is quite logical, he went out to market and after investigation opened an initial tender process.

We looked at various options out there, and we looked at things like Symantec and Veeam, Barracuda and so on. We tried all the software out there, basically, making our pro pros and cons list of all we evaluated. But quite frankly, most were just too expensive.”

Delivering cloud-like success without the cost

Luckily, the actual final choice was introduced by a colleague Miller knew who was working at a different school, a technology called Arscerve. That was a solution, he states, that allowed Outwood to build its own servers and so were able to just install the software, which saved him what he calls “quite a bit” of money.

For us, it was incredibly easy to do; we were very comfortable, and as Arscerve is essentially an offsite backup product, this was very useful for us and I estimate we’ve saved around £500,000 over the period doing it this way as opposed to the alternatives on offer. That’s because we had a presence in our datacentre for other services, we can very easily replicate all our data offsite really quite easily, and at what we see as minimal cost. 

For example, deduplication has meant we haven’t had to buy any more storage; in one seven-day period, the amount of recoverable data we had increased by 120 terabytes, but the amount of stored data had only increased by 0.5 terabytes, for example.

Specifically, Outwood now has DR in place for 569 servers (10% physical and 90% virtual), protecting a total volume of raw data of 2 petabytes which has been drastically reduced via this software, down to more like 270 terabytes through deduplication and compression. In fact, its largest Academy, Outwood Grange Academy in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, has seen its original 1,500 terabytes of recoverable data reduced to just under 30 terabytes. And in terms of DR functionality, as Outwood has a backup server in each Academy backed up each night and the data then automatically replicated to its datacentre, if a school ever experienced significant data loss, the data is safe and can be spun up within three or four minutes.

So happy is Miller with his solution here that when we asked what might change if diginomica/government came back to speak to him in six months time, he genuinely expects, well, not a lot:

I don't see the need for much to change at all, if I'm honest, over the next few years; there's no reason for us to change, as this works so well for us. It’s a stress-free solution that does its job reliably and quickly and which has also freed up resources so we can deliver cloud benefits without the associated costs.

Image credit - Image sourced via Outwood Academies website

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