How Hartnell College Recovered Critical Systems Using AWS After a Cyber Attack

Located in Salinas, California, Hartnell College stands as a beacon of community education. When Dr. Chelsy Pham, Chief Information Systems Officer, assumed her position at the college in the spring of 2022, the college was aware of the need to modernize its IT infrastructure. Dr. Pham and her team had a long-term vision to move to Amazon Web Services (AWS) and were in the midst of developing their cloud strategy to facilitate the modernization. This aspiration, however, would soon face an unexpected and challenging test.

On the morning of October 2, 2022, at 6:00 a.m. a network outage sparked suspicion that a cyber attack had occurred. Responding swiftly, Hartnell’s IT team promptly shut down all internal network activities. The district temporarily couldn’t reach external websites or services, and classroom projectors on campus could not be used. In the wake of the crisis, Hartnell engaged cyber experts and a preliminary investigation revealed that Hartnell College was a victim of a sophisticated ransomware attack.

Faced with adversity, the college began recovering what they could and started rebuilding on AWS. With the help of the team at Ferrilli, an AWS Consulting Partner, the core student information system (SIS) was soon up and running in the cloud, and later, the base infrastructure was also running in the cloud. This was the beginning of the Hartnell IT team rebuilding and recovering their IT infrastructure. Learn more about the details of their recovery and rebuilding strategy in the full case study “How a multilocation community college in California rapidly recovered from a devastating cyberattack.

Cyber attacks are unfortunately becoming a common event in higher education. However, there are ways that leaders can proactively prepare their institutions to be resilient in the event of a cyber event. Based on the lessons learned from Hartnell College’s experience, higher education leaders can consider the following steps to better prevent and prepare against cyber events.

1. Inventory and document the processes of the IT department

Many colleges and universities have a large IT infrastructure footprint on premises. Keeping IT infrastructure, software, and security measures up-to-date with a (usually) small IT department can be challenging. From Hartnell College’s experience, an integral component to recovery was an inventoried, up-to-date backup with complete documentation. Creating this documentation is the first step in recovering in the case of a cyber issue or event.

2. Outsource implementation to experts to accelerate your recovery strategy

Many small higher education institutions don’t have the expertise, resources, or experience to successfully transition their IT infrastructure into the cloud. Working with an AWS Partner can reduce and remove the barriers to entry in transitioning to cloud computing. The AWS Partner Network (APN) has over 100,000 partners from over 150 countries and enables customers to accelerate their journey to the cloud and take full advantage of what AWS has to offer.

As part of Hartnell College’s modernization plan, Dr. Pham’s proactive engagement with the college’s AWS account team and with the team at Ferilli, an AWS Select Tier Services Partner, underscored the importance of expert collaboration in the face of crises.

Following the cyber incident, Dr. Pham contacted AWS and Ferrilli to begin creating her plan of action. In less than a month, she and her team were able to set up an infrastructure on AWS using AWS Control Tower and AWS Organizations. Dr. Pham credits AWS and Ferrilli for successfully migrating Hartnell College’s digital infrastructure to the cloud.

3. Have a backup and recovery plan—and practice it

Dr. Pham is an advocate for properly preparing for the worst-case scenarios. For Hartnell, AWS played an important role in their ability to recover quickly in the cloud.

One of the five pillars of the AWS Well-Architected Framework is reliability, which highlights the necessity for a Plan for Disaster Recovery (DR). AWS provides options for educational institutions to store their backups in AWS Backup and provide the necessary resources immediately in order to perform a recovery. AWS also offers AWS Elastic Disaster Recovery, a service to minimize downtime and data loss with recovery into AWS. Regardless of the scope of an institution’s backup strategy, AWS recommends documenting the process and practicing the recovery in case of emergencies.

4. Leadership, support, and team cohesion are key to fast change

Dr. Pham credits the leadership team at Hartnell, the support of students and faculty in the Hartnell community, and her IT staff for their ability to come together, support, and move forward during the challenging cyber event and transition to cloud computing. Having a cohesive leadership team that is trusting and open-minded enables faster rates of change. Hartnell’s IT infrastructure is now hosted on AWS. Hartnell has also leveraged the breadth of AWS services and has begun exploring capabilities of other AWS-managed services to further enable their students’ success by improving accessibility and agility.

Learn more about AWS for higher education

Higher education institutions around the world use AWS to modernize and secure their campus, improve student experience, turn data into wisdom, empower researchers, and accelerate research. To make changes, the process begins with the business decision-makers and IT leadership.

Learn more about how AWS supports higher education and how you can begin to build on AWS. If you are interested in learning more about leveraging the FoundationCCC’s agreements with Amazon Web Services or with Ferrilli, please contact

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