Salvation Army Finds Refuge, Recovery In The Cloud

Nonprofit agency finds cloud-based backup and disaster recovery system is best and most cost-effective way to protect critical data.
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In the heart of the Midwest, the Salvation Army is learning how a cloud service can cost-effectively provide disaster recovery, a function which may have previously been considered too expensive for the nonprofit agency.

The Central Territory of the Salvation Army operates 350 centers that rely on IT services from a Des Plaines, Ill., office. About 6,500 clients in 11 states rely on those centers for programs fighting drug addiction and human trafficking; they also offer food distribution, disaster relief, and shelter for the homeless. Those clients would be hard pressed if the centers' IT systems went down.

Until a year ago, however, the possibility of an outage was a constant worry to Ron Shoults, IT director for the Central Territory, which covers Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. The Central Territory had backup procedures that created tapes with up to 35 TBs of data, but re-assembling the tapes from their Iron Mountain storage facility, rebuilding the systems, and loading the data was a process that promised to take weeks, not hours or days, and no one was really able to test the tapes' ability to support a full recovery.

At the very least, there would be days of discontinued services and up to a week of lost data, further delaying recovery depending on when the last tape had been made.

[Want to learn about another nonprofit that turned to the cloud? See Cloud ROI Easy Win: Disaster Recovery.]

But could a disaster in the non-hurricane-prone, geologically stable Midwest really knock out the Central Territory unit's data center? "We lost a regional data center [in a small city] when a water tank ruptured and sent a million gallons of water into a building" where the Salvation Army's IT operations resided in the basement. "We lost that small data center. I know what it takes to recover. It isn't easy," Shoults said.

Instead of continuing to rely on tape, a year ago Shoults's staff implemented the Quantum DXi 4601 storage appliance in its data center. The appliance performs deduplication before sending encrypted data through an IPSec tunnel over the Internet to Hipskind Technology Solutions Group's data center in Chicago.

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The Salvation Army's Des Plaines operation is a VMware virtualized shop. It uses Symantec's Backup Exec backup system with Hipskind's QSafe service, which works with the Quantum DXi appliance. Hipskind uses Quantum's VmPro software to ensure complete copies of virtual systems are kept on hand. The combination provides a normal backup process that creates two copies of data in the cloud, which in turn can serve as the backbone of the Salvation Army's disaster recovery system.

The Quantum DXi 4601 appliance deduplicates the data, reducing what would be 34 TBs down to less than 12 TB. It's then shipped to Hipskind over the Internet, which immediately makes a second copy in another data center, moving the data outside a potential regionwide disaster, such as the East Coast's Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The Salvation Army keeps copies of its virtual machines sleeping in the Hipskind data center, paying only the cost of storing them until they're needed. Thus, a cutover would be far from instantaneous. But Hipskind's managers have assured Shoults he would be back in business with most of his systems -- those that are running as VMware VMs -- within 24 hours. "That's 24 hours, as opposed to 24 days," he said.

His unit still runs 10 physical servers with applications that have not been virtualized. "The physical boxes represent more like a two-to-three day window to recovery. We're working on virtualizing those physical machines in order to shrink the recovery window," said Everett Jordan, assistant IT director, in an interview.

The whole arrangement adds a $1,500 monthly expense to Shoults's budget, and no nonprofit is looking for added expenses. But, Shoults points out, the Central Territory now has a disaster recovery process that costs only $1,500 a month and could save it hundreds of thousands of dollars in the event of a natural or man-made catastrophic failure.

He also he frees up staff time previously spent on making tapes and handing them off to the Iron Mountain pickup crew at the appointed hour, not to mention the costs of the Iron Mountain service itself. "It's well worth the investment," says Shoults. "It gets me a good night's sleep."

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