Study Group moving from manual DR to an 'always-on' education provider

The education provider turned to Veeam to remove manual processes from its disaster recovery plans and increase its productivity amid global expansion.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Education provider Study Group first opened its doors to students back in the 1980s, focusing originally on language studies in the UK before expanding internationally in the mid-1990s after a spate of acquisitions.

Fast forward to 2017 and Study Group now comprises several brands and partnerships underneath its banner, each providing education services such as higher education, vocational language education and online services, ranging from high school to life-long learning programs.

Currently, Study Group employs approximately 4,500 staff in 120-odd sites around the world. In 2015 alone, the organisation took in over 73,000 students from 145 countries, studying at around 80 campuses globally.

With the internet allowing people to study in multiple areas and locations, and at times that they wouldn't normally, Study Group became aware very early on how important it was to be digital -- and how far and fast its footprint was growing as a result.

Old-school disaster recovery

Despite acknowledging the digital age and shifting many of its services online early in the game, Study Group managed its disaster recovery manually.

The company was reliant on the intimate knowledge of individual members of the IT team to recall where individual backups were located, and the backup and recovery process relied heavily on large-scale tape drives, which often led to labour-intensive operations with high maintenance costs.

According to Andrew Christensen, senior systems engineer at Study Group, the decision to virtualise its backend was important to give the business flexibility in how it would deal with the shifting demand in student enrolments across the globe.

"It was difficult. We had a toolset that was disconnected from one to the other," Christensen told ZDNet. "We used ad hoc jobs to backup and maintain data -- depending on the system that we were using. We used data-moving functions to get data from one place to another quite frequently, often replicating in certain circumstances."

Essentially, a lot of user intervention was required to maintain datasets across the organisation when it really shouldn't have been done that way.

Study Group then went to the market to find a solution that met the requirement of maintaining an 'always on' global organisation.

"We have a lot of infrastructure and we have a good structure as a whole, but we weren't really giving it the benefit of maintaining availability, so finding a solution to help us do that was a priority," Christensen said.

"When we started looking around, we realised that the solution we needed was based on a hybrid cloud model that we've seen come into fashion recently."

Enter Veeam.

Cloud-based DR to the rescue

"We're an education provider; students come to us, pay for an education course or a service, and we need to deliver that," Christensen said. "Any interruption to that is a reflection on our service, which in turn is a reflection on what we can charge for our service."

"Maintaining always-on, maintaining reliability, and the reputation that comes along with those things -- it's a big deal."

As Study Group houses a figurative truck load of user data, from course-related student credentials through to personally identifiable information, including payment terms -- as Christensen called it, "All sorts of personal data that you don't want people to get their hands on" -- privacy and security is of the highest importance.

With Veeam in place, Christensen said that protecting the data of its users has become far less intimidating, as the organisation has now experienced the reliability of 'always on' and the security that comes with it.

Since rolling out the solution, the business has seen a 60 percent reduction in the cost of data retention and storage. Application development costs have been reduced by an estimated 15 percent and spending on hardware has reduced by 10 percent.

Study Group has also experienced a 100 percent increase in disaster recovery capability and 60 percent cost savings.

"Now that we do have this concept of always-on and an appreciation of what that involves, it allows for it to be a lot more accessible so people can take courses when and wherever they like," Christensen said.

Refocusing IT teams

Study Group's IT teams now have the opportunity to work on development rather than system upkeep, with Christensen noting that the projects the teams are taking on are becoming bigger and more complex as a result.

"Our approach towards how we do things has changed slightly, having the reliability and the security that comes with it," he explained.

"It's shifted our focus a little bit away from data protection specifically around application development. If we can divert resource away from data protection under the development scope and make that an infrastructure issue as opposed to a development issue, it means we can put a lot more time into quality applications."

Christensen explained that some of the projects Study Group is now taking on now are a lot more ambitious, noting that the ability to take on big data projects and those that combine all of the organisation's resources would not have been attempted previously without having a clear-cut methodology for backup and protection.

"The solutions we're working with aren't anything too special; we're just leveraging them the right way and really embracing them to get the most out of it -- there's nothing too groundbreaking here," Christensen concluded.

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