The Gmail of Archives: How USC is Turning IT Costs into Online Profits

Yesterday I met Sam Gustman (@sgustman on Twitter), Associate Dean and CTO of the University of Southern California. He took me through the story of the USC Digital Repository (USCDR), an online service launched four months ago. The USCDR was created as a perpetual archiving service to help organizations (and individuals) manage and preserve digital assets.

Earlier this week I wrote about IT consumers becoming technology providers—here’s yet another example. It’s the “Amazon AWS Effect” in action where an organization develops a particular competitive advantage around IT and realizes that it can monetize that capability by offering a solution and marketing it online. Before the Internet, such initiatives were notable but little in number (e.g. Visa, SABRE, etc). Post-Internet they’re everywhere—Amazon, Google, Cerner, NYSE and many others.

The USC Repository was created out of a trifecta of partners, including Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation Institute (SFI), the USC Libraries, which was providing archiving, imaging, and metadata services for its own collection; and USC’s IT department (ITS – for Information Technology Services).

Several years ago, Spielberg started documenting the stories of Holocaust survivors and launched the Shoah Foundation Institute. With 52,000 video testimonies, SFI developed digital preservation technology to preserve the content that needed long-term archiving. It combined this with the USC Library’s and ITS’ capabilities to launch an archiving and preservation service focused on five areas:

  • Digitization – converting physical or electronic assets into a standard digital format
  • Cataloging – creating metadata to allow users to easily search and find assets
  • Preservation – guaranteeing the long-term integrity of the assets
  • Web Access
  • File-server Access – i.e. high bandwidth file management to access digital assets

USC charges customers as follows:

  • $70/TB per month for online disk-based file access and
  • $1000/TB for 20 years of preservation

The goal: To become the “Gmail of on-line archives.”

The three most interesting pieces here are 1) the preservation technology; 2) the information and metadata management services and 3) the revenue generating business model. In particular, preservation is tricky business. Media degrades and depending on the medium, it ‘rots’ at a rate where assets will be ruined after anywhere from 3-20 years.  USC has developed technology to guarantee preservation virtually indefinitely. Gustman told me essentially the system trusts no media and assumes that assets must be not only be protected properly, but migrated to a current platform after three years. Preservation is tricky business and from what I can tell USC has thought through this problem and is putting its money where its mouth is by offering a service that guarantees asset preservation.

USC Partners with Nirvanix to Enable the Business Model

Gustman told me that he just signed an 8PB deal with Nirvanix and this was just the beginning. He said that 4.25 of the 8PB are located on premise at the USC facilities and another 4.25PB are located in a private cloud powered by Nirvanix technology and located off site, outside southern California’s earth quake zone. He said the main reasons USC chose Nirvanix were the geographic diversification and security of the Nirvanix solution. In addition, the fact that they could deploy Nirvanix on-premise and build a hybrid off-site solution was what sealed the deal.

Specifically, the Nirvanix solution can be placed on-site at an organization’s data center or data can be stored off premise in the Nirvanix cloud; or both as is the case with USC. The interesting thing is that the pricing model to USC is the same—it’s a pay-by-the-drink, no up-front CAPEX elastic system where Nirvanix will over-provision and turn on capacity as USC needs. The on-premise system is completely managed by Nirvanix. While others can copy this capability on-premise the attractiveness of the Nirvanix external cloud, along with its enterprise class features such as encryption and strong SLAs are what won Nirvanix the business.

Prior to Nirvanix, USC had been using Oracle (STK) tape (USC has a 40PB tape archive) and Isilon NAS for high-speed data access. Gustman said while he’s not tossing this infrastructure, future growth will go to Nirvanix.

This was a huge deal for startup Nirvanix – probably the company’s largest to date. It follows on the heels of an OEM deal with IBM and a deal to supply Cerner with cloud storage. People are starting to notice Nirvanix and competitively this deal had to be north of seven figures.  The IBM OEM relationship gives the small company street cred and as these ancillary wins pile up the company will continue to gain traction in the marketplace. Moreover, Nirvanix is one of the few companies that is actually delivering true hybrid cloud solutions where the on-premise and off premise infrastructure, pricing, security and SLA models are identical.

Advice for Practitioners

Gustman said USC’s infrastructure was already set up to provide object storage access for its applications—so there wasn’t a big learning curve as is often the case for object store migrations. His main advice was to make sure you understand the corporate edicts and unique policies of your organization from the standpoint of security, encryption and the like. Once you clearly understand those, make sure whatever solution you’re acquiring can accommodate these mandates prior to bringing in a system.

He said in this case, the security, storage, encryption, SLA, on-premise mandate and pricing criteria that Nirvanix put forth in the RFP matched very well to USC’s requirements.

In this particular example, many smaller organizations simply don’t have the resources to match USC’s preservation and digital asset management capabilities to include digitization, cataloguing, online access, workflow and importantly, preservation. Increasingly, IT organizations with a competitive technology, marketing and time-to-market advantage will look to offer cloud services to the masses. The holy grail of IT has been how to shift the mindset of the organization from looking at IT as a necessary cost to one that views IT as a contributor to value.

The best way CIOs can do that is to generate a profit from IT.