How I Freed Up Storage at the Speed of SaaS

Like many public school systems, the Yellowknife Education District No. 1 (YK1) serves a continually growing population under a tight budget. The district, in the Northwest Territories of Canada, employs more than 250 dedicated staff members in eight separate schools serving more than 2,000 students. The tech team is proud of its work to ensure a brighter future for all students, staff, parents and community members. Imagine our chagrin when we learned that we were quickly burning up storage space and were about to run out of room in two of our SAN storage units in the middle of the year.

Here are the lessons my team learned when our data levels came close to exceeding our storage capacity.

1. Don't Just Add Storage Capacity

The mistake many of us in IT make when confronted with a capacity management issue is to simply add more storage. Yes, this does alleviate the problem, but it has serious long-term costs and maintenance issues. We came to the realization that much of the data causing our IT log jam was likely outdated or unnecessary. The problem we then faced, however, was that we didn't know what we needed to keep and what could be deleted.

2. Unstructured Data at Root of Problem

As anybody who has managed a company's storage infrastructure can attest, it's amazing how much content end users can create quickly. The proliferation of unstructured data causes storage volumes to grow quickly--sometimes so quickly that it can catch you off guard. (Unstructured data is loosely defined as computerized information that does not reside in a database.) Things like e-mail, spreadsheets and documents fit into this category and were quickly eating up our storage capacity.

The key word in the term is "unstructured." We found it difficult to effectively manage data in these file formats. It's the IT equivalent of herding kittens. Because of this challenge, we saw value in a data governance solution.

People often bristle at governance solutions because they are perceived as large, clunky on-premise solutions that are expensive and require extensive maintenance. Having a small staff supporting eight locations, each with their own SAN and file servers, I needed a solution that would give us answers fast. I needed to know which files we could delete right then and there to reclaim disk space, without the hassle and complexity of the infrastructure that some of the enterprise solutions require.

3. SaaS Offers Speed

While most companies cannot afford on-premise data governance solutions, the SaaS delivery model cuts out many of the inherent challenges. We chose the SaaS-based Aprigo NINJA data governance solution for its ease of setup and use. This solution quickly scanned through all of our files' metadata and provided us with the following file information: size of folders in the environment; stale files that could be deleted to push out storage upgrades; and data that didn't belong on the network such as IM, iTunes or other personal applications.

From there, we were able to confidently eliminate redundant or outdated files to free up the server capacity.

SaaS also enabled us to have centralized remote management in a distributed environment. We installed a single application client at each of our locations and they all reported back critical resource management information, to provide us the unified file management visibility we needed in an easy-to-read dashboard. It literally took us a few minutes to be fully operational. The project to eliminate files was done in a day.

4. Centralized Rights Management Boosts Productivity

While it was great to solve our immediate capacity management problem, our newfound visibility into our infrastructure showed that we had inadequate access rights management on some confidential files.

Let's do some quick IT math: the average terabyte has 5 million files with the average storage infrastructure storing 1.5 terabytes. This means that my small team is responsible for more than 60 million files spread across eight separate sites. The YK1 IT team needs to ensure that files, folders and shares that belong to the staff and teachers are well protected and not accessible by students. Given the fact that that data is created by the end-users themselves, and with the same end users changing permissions and granting rights, we often lacked the necessary visibility and control.

Managing access management rights puts us in a vulnerable position should any YK1 employee either decide to go rogue or, what is more common, simply forget to set the appropriate level of protection. To safeguard ourselves, we had to manually go through folders to make sure they were not exposed to the "Everyone" group. Understanding who has access to sensitive folders required us to go back and forth between the file system and Active Directory documenting things in Excel. Even then we would get a static view that was soon out-of date. Our SaaS-based data governance solution changed that because it allowed us to quickly view several user and file access properties including: what is accessible to whom; which folders are exposed to the 'Everyone' and 'Domain Users' groups; and which folders have explicit permissions for users, breaking role-based access control.

After being bitten once by running out of disk space on a couple of our SANs in the middle of the school year, it feels good to be back in control. We anticipate unstructured data to be a continual challenge for us (and every company) but believe we have the processes and tools in place to avoid any future capacity management scares. While many discuss cost savings as the primary benefit of SaaS, speed turned out to be just as big an advantage.

Martin Male serves as Manager, IT Services for Yellowknife Education District No. 1 in Canada's Northwest Territories.

This story, "How I Freed Up Storage at the Speed of SaaS" was originally published by CIO.

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