A Lesson in Disaster Recovery


At VMworld 2016, we spoke with customers about how they are supporting digital business transformation (view our video interview above). Senior IT leaders, all describe a challenging but exciting multi-year journey, and all agree that technology is ever-more critical to business innovation, agility, and resilience. And they are embracing a customer-first approach. For end customers and employees alike, they want to make life and work easier, more convenient, more productive, and more fruitful. 

The Atlantic hurricane season calls for vigilance in the southern United States and the Caribbean. But disaster can strike across the entire eastern seaboard. “When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, we lost the whole bottom level of our Manhattan campus,” recalls Maura Woods of St. John’s University in New York. “Its electrical system was completely underwater.”

As associate vice president for information technology, Woods explains how the IT organization mobilized to support the displaced Manhattan students at the university’s campus in Queens. Led by CIO Joe Tufano, the team worked long hours to minimize lost learning time, but for the university’s administration, it was too close for comfort. Post-Sandy, a university-wide risk assessment identified disaster recovery as a critical area for improvement. “Disaster recovery became our top priority,” Woods says.

What Happens When Tier Zero Becomes Ground Zero?

Woods outlines the IT organization’s challenges: “St. John’s is tuition-driven, so we’re not like big universities that can fund technology initiatives through endowment funds. We need to provide cutting-edge technology to benefit our students and faculty and yet stay economically prudent.”

First to be addressed were the university’s Tier 0 applications—that is, enterprise software vital to the institution’s ability to operate. St. John’s relies on the Banner enterprise resource planning system for admission, enrollment, financial aid, general ledger, human resources, and even alumni relations. Other important applications include a recruiting system and an online portal for students and faculty to access school resources. These applications had to continue to function in the face of a disaster such as Hurricane Sandy—or worse.

“We had to come up with a disaster recovery solution in a tight time frame with a limited budget and a small staff,” Woods says. “In addition, disaster recovery is not part of our internal expertise.”

Another challenge was cost. Management had several decisions to make, says Woods: “Could the university afford to do it completely off-premises? Could we outsource it? Or could we come up with a more cost-efficient solution for the university?”

Enter Cloud-Based Disaster Recovery

There’s quite a debate in the industry about the costs of on-premises versus public cloud resourcing, made more complex by that fact that competition is driving down cloud costs. However, the cloud isn’t just servers or applications moved somewhere else; rather, it requires a fundamental shift in how IT thinks about infrastructure—something the St. John’s IT organization was familiar with.

“We looked at cloud offerings,” she says. “You can easily get infrastructure as a service, and I actually had gone down that path for test and development. That was something we were comfortable with. But when it came to disaster recovery as a service, we needed a vendor with the expertise to help us architect the solution.”

Based on the university’s prior success with VMware, St. John’s pulled the company in to provide extra resources to complement its team. Working together, the VMware and St. John’s teams were able to quickly deploy a disaster recovery solution. “We brought up our entire set of Tier 0 applications in VMware vCloud® Air™ in a very tight time frame—between October and December,” Woods says.

A key to success was leveraging existing skills. “With a small IT department, stay with something you know,” Woods explains. “vCloud Air uses the same tools as our VMware environment, so our engineers were comfortable with the transition.”

The university’s IT team is now looking to expand its cloud-based disaster recovery system to cover Tier 1 applications. There’s also the potential of moving on-premises workloads to the public cloud. “The university is very happy with the fact that we stayed within budget and we’re providing them with disaster recovery,” Woods says. “If you ask where we’ll be in five years, we don’t know. But we’re keeping our options open, and we’re looking to see if this is something we want to do long term for our on-premises applications.”

In the video above, learn how cloud-based continuity is helping Woods enable a global university environment.



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