Cloud Storage for Higher Education: Benefits & Best Practices

A decorative image showing files and graduation caps being thrown into the Backblaze cloud.

Universities and colleges lead the way in educating future professionals and conducting ground-breaking research. Altogether, higher education generates hundreds of terabytes—even petabytes—of data. But, higher education also faces significant data risks. They are one of the most targeted industries for ransomware, with 79% of institutions reporting they were hit with ransomware in the past year.

While higher education institutions often have robust data storage systems that can even include their own off-site disaster recovery (DR) centers, cloud storage can provide several benefits that legacy storage systems cannot match. In particular, cloud storage allows schools to protect from ransomware with immutability, easily grow their datasets without constant hardware outlays, and protect faculty, student, and researchers’ computers with cloud-based endpoint backups.

Cloud storage is also a promising alternative to cloud drives, traditionally a popular option for higher education institutions. While cloud drives provide easy storage across campus, both Google and Microsoft have announced the end of their unlimited storage tiers for education. Faced with changes to the original service, many higher education institutions are looking for alternatives. Plus, cloud drives do not provide true, incremental backup, do not adequately protect from ransomware, and have limited options for recovery.   

Ultimately, cloud storage better protects your school from local disasters and ransomware with a secure, off-site copy of your data. And, with the right cloud service provider, it can be much more affordable than you think. In this article, we’ll look at the benefits of cloud storage for higher education, study some popular use cases, and explore best practices and provisioning considerations.

The Benefits of Cloud Storage in Higher Education

Cloud storage solutions present a host of benefits for organizations in any industry, but many of these benefits are particularly relevant for higher education institutions. Let’s take a look:

1. Enhanced Security

Higher education institutions have emerged as one of ransomware attackers’ favorite targets—63% of higher education CISOs say a cyber attack is likely within the next year. Data backups are a core part of any organization’s security posture, and that includes keeping those backups protected and secure in the cloud. Using cloud storage to store backups strengthens backup programs by keeping copies off-site and geographically distanced, which adheres to the 3-2-1 backup strategy (more on that later). Cloud storage can also be made immutable using tools like Object Lock, meaning data can’t be modified or deleted. This feature is often unavailable in existing data storage hardware.

2. Cost-Effective Storage

Higher education generates huge volumes of data each year. Keeping costs low without sacrificing in other areas is a key priority for these institutions, across both active data and archival data stores. Cloud storage helps higher education institutions use their storage budgets effectively by not paying to provision and maintain on-premises infrastructure they don’t need. It can also help higher education institutions migrate away from linear tape-open (LTO) which can be costly to manage.

3. Improved Scalability

As digital data continues to grow, it’s important for those institutions to be able to easily scale with their storage needs. Cloud storage allows higher education institutions to avoid potentially over-provisioning infrastructure with the ability to affordably tier off data to the cloud. 

4. Data Accessibility

Making data easily accessible is important for many aspects of higher education. From the impact of scientific researchers to the ongoing work of attracting students to the university, the increasing quantities of data that higher education creates needs to be easy to access, use, and manage. Cloud storage makes data accessible from anywhere, and with hot cloud storage, there are no access delays like there can be with cold cloud storage or LTO tape.

5. Supports Cybersecurity Insurance Requirements

It’s increasingly common to utilize cyber insurance to offset potential liabilities incurred by a cyber attack. Many of those applications ask if the covered entity has off-site backups or immutable backups. Sometimes they even specify the backup has to be held somewhere other than the organization’s own locations. (We’ve seen other organizations outside of higher ed adding cloud storage for this reason as well). Cloud storage provides a pathway to meeting cyber insurance requirements universities may face.

How Higher Ed Institutions Can Use Cloud Storage Effectively

There are many ways higher education institutions can make effective use of cloud storage solutions. The most common use case is cloud storage for backup and archive systems. Transitioning from on-premises storage to cloud-based solutions—even if an organization is only transitioning a part of their total data footprint while retaining on-premises systems—is a powerful way for higher education institutions to protect their most important data.  To illustrate, here are some common use cases with real-life examples:

LTO Replacement

It’s no surprise that maintaining tape is a pain. While it’s the only true physical air-gap solution, it’s also a time suck, and those are precious hours that your IT team should be spending on strategic initiatives. This is particularly applicable in projects that generate huge amounts of data, like scientific research. Cloud storage provides the same off-site protection as LTO with far fewer maintenance hours. 

Off-Site Backups

As mentioned, higher ed institutions often keep an off-site copy of their data, but it’s commonly a few miles down the road—perhaps at a different branch’s campus. Transitioning to cloud storage allowed Coast Community College District (CCCD) to quit chauffeuring physical tapes to an off-site backup center about five miles away and instead implement a virtualized, multi-cloud solution with truly geographically distanced backups.

Protection From Ransomware

A ransomware attack is not a matter of if, but when. Cloud storage provides immutable ransomware protection with Object Lock, which creates a “virtual” air gap. Pittsburg State University, for example, leverages cloud storage to protect university data from ransomware threats. They strengthened their protection four-fold by adding immutable off-site data backups, and are now able to manage data recovery and data integrity with a single robust solution (that doesn’t multiply their expenses).

Computer Backup

While S3 compatible object storage provides a secure destination for data from servers, virtual machines (VMs), and network attached storage (NAS), it’s important to remember to back up faculty, staff, student, and researchers’ computers as well. Workstation backup is particularly important for organizations that are leveraging cloud drives, as these platforms are only designed to capture data stored in their respective clouds, leaving local files vulnerable to loss. But, one thing you don’t want is a drain on your IT resources—you want a solution that’s easy to implement, easy to manage ongoing, and simple enough to serve users of varying tech savviness. 

Best Practices for Data Backup and Management in the Cloud

Higher education institutions (and anyone, really!) should follow basic best practices to get the most out of their cloud storage solutions. Here are a few key points to keep in mind when developing a data backup and management strategy for higher education:

The 3-2-1 Backup Strategy

This widely accepted foundational structure recommends keeping three copies of all important data (one primary copy and two backup copies) on two different media types (to diversify risk) and storing at least one copy off-site. While colleges and universities frequently have high-capacity data storage systems, they don’t always adhere to the 3-2-1 rule. For instance, a school may have an off-site disaster recovery site, but their backups are not on two different media types. Or, they may be meeting the two-media-type rule but their media are not wholly off-site. Keeping your backups at a different campus location does not constitute a true off-site backup if you’re in the same region, for instance—the closer your data storage sites are, the more likely they’ll be subject to the same risks, like network outages, natural disasters, and so on.

Regular Data Backups

You’re only as strong as your last backup. Maintaining a frequent and regular backup schedule is a tried and true way to ensure that your institution’s data is as protected as possible. Schools that have historically relied on Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, and other cloud drive systems are particularly vulnerable to this gap in their data protection strategy. Cloud drives provide sync functionality; they are not a true backup. While many now have the ability to restore files, restore periods are limited and not customizable and services often only back up certain file types—so, your documents, but not your email or user data, for instance. Especially when you’re talking about larger organizations with complex file management and high compliance needs, they don’t provide adequate protection from ransomware. Speaking of ransomware…

Ransomware Protection

Educational institutions (including both K-12 and higher ed) are more frequently targeted by ransomware today than ever before. When you’re using cloud storage, you can enable security features like Object Lock to offer “air gapped” protection and data immutability in the cloud. When you add endpoint backup, you’re ensuring that all the data on a workstation is backed up—closing a gap in cloud drives that can leave certain types of data vulnerable to loss.

Disaster Recovery Planning

Incorporating cloud storage into your disaster recovery strategy is the best way to plan for the worst. If unexpected disasters occur, you’ll know exactly where your data lives and how to restore it so you can get back to work quickly. Schools will often use cross-site replication as their disaster recovery solution, but such methods can fail the 3-2-1 test (see above) and it’s not a true backup since replication functions much the same way as sync. If ransomware invades your primary dataset, it can be replicated across all your copies. Cloud storage allows you to fortify your disaster recovery strategy and plug the gaps in your data protection.

Regulatory Compliance

Universities work with and store many diverse kinds of information, including highly regulated data types like medical records and research data. It’s important for higher education to use cloud storage solutions that help them remain in compliance with data privacy laws and federal or international regulations. Providers like Backblaze that frequently work with higher education institutions will usually have a HECVAT questionnaire available so you can better understand a vendor’s compliance and security stance, and they go through regular compliance audits via regulatory agencies like StateRAMP or SOC-2 certifications.

Comprehensive Protection

While it’s obvious that data systems like servers, virtual machines, and network attached storage (NAS) should be backed up, consider the other important sources of data that should be included in your protection strategy. For instance, your Microsoft 365 data should be backed up because you cannot rely on Microsoft to provide adequate backups. Under the shared responsibility model, Microsoft and other SaaS providers state that your data is your responsibility to back up—even if it’s stored on their cloud. And don’t forget about your faculty, student, staff, and researchers’ computers. These devices can hold incredibly valuable work and having a native endpoint backup solution is critical.

The Importance of Cloud Storage for Higher Education Institutions

Institutions of higher education were already on the long road toward digital transformation before the pandemic hit, but 2020 forced any reluctant parties to accept that the future was upon us. The combination of schools’ increasing quantities of sensitive and protected data and the growing threat of ransomware in the higher education space reinforce the need for secure and robust cloud storage solutions. As time has gone on, it’s clear that the diverse needs of higher education institutions need flexible, scalable, affordable solutions, and that current and legacy solutions have room for improvement. 

Universities that leverage best practices like designing 3-2-1 backup strategies, conducting frequent and regular backups, and developing disaster recovery plans before they’re needed will be well on their way toward becoming more modern, digital-first organizations. And with the right cloud storage solutions in place, they’ll be able to move the needle with measurable business benefits like cost effectiveness, data accessibility, increased security, and scalability.


About Kari Rivas

Kari Rivas is the product marketing manager for server backup at Backblaze, where she works closely with lead integration partners like MSP360 and others to ensure that managed service providers, IT consultants, and small and medium-sized businesses never lose their precious data. She received her MBA in 2010 and has spent 13 years in marketing, most notably in the education and human capital management industries before landing at Backblaze. When she's not busy talking about the benefits of Backblaze's astonishingly easy cloud storage, she can be found practicing yoga, eating cupcakes, and spending time with her family. Connect with her on LinkedIn.