Art Museum's New Server Collection Brings Ancient Works to Life

By leveraging the best of past and present computing platforms, San Francisco's Asian Art Museum is giving visitors a richer, more interactive experience.

July 8, 2003

16 Min Read
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Business Profile: The Asian Art Museum

Web address: www.asianart.org

Project leader: Jim Horio, director of IT

Technology in Focus: Server consolidation

Project costs: $800,000Business Challenge: For 35 years, the Asian Art Museum resided in San Francisco's picturesque Golden Gate Park. But when the museum, which houses nearly 15,000 works with an estimated worth of $4 billion, began to experience growing pains in the 1990s, the citizens of San Francisco voted to refurbish the city's former Main Library as its new home. The project required installation of a new data and telecommunications infrastructure, and the museum also wanted to add multimedia kiosks to give visitors a more interactive experience. Since the museum's outdated Dell servers were beginning to resemble some of the more antiquated items in its collection, James Horio, director of IT, needed to find new systems that could handle the load. And since the project involved a combination of public bonds and private funding, a reasonable price tag was a must.

Solution: In March 2003, the museum moved into its new 40,000-square-foot facility. In addition to the updated IT infrastructure, it now features a Cisco IP telephony system and more than a dozen multimedia kiosks with streaming audio and video. Under Horio's direction, the Dell servers were retired, and IBM iSeries and xSeries midrange systems took their place.

In the museum's current configuration, an i820 server houses eight Integrated xSeries blade servers and is linked to a smaller external xSeries server. The museum also has a number of other xSeries servers that support a variety of applications. This configuration enables the OS/400-based iSeries servers and the Windows-based xSeries blade servers to share storage resources and be managed from the same platform, eliminating the need for an additional administrator. It also avoids the expense and complexity that an Intel-based server farm would have involved. Finally, the IP telephony system streamlines telecommunications and administrative costs.

So far, the IBM servers have successfully supported the museum's multimedia, IP telephony, and other specialized applications by combining the advantages of AS/400 and Windows, says Horio. And project costs came in at a thrifty $800,000.

When it comes to IT, James Horio is a true renaissance man. Now director of IT at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, Horio boasts an extensive resume: In addition to a stint as a programmer, he's held various IT positions with a cruise line, a diesel distributor, a medical instrument company, and several other private sector firms. His repertoire also includes experience with systems predating the Wintel era, such as the IBM System/32 and AS/400.Although switches and servers aren't necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing objects you're likely to run across, they're essential for the day-to-day operation of most modern galleries. And when an art museum needs someone to orchestrate an overhaul of its IT infrastructure, a renaissance man with a rich computing history is just about as close to the mark as it gets. When Horio joined the Asian Art Museum's team a few years ago, he brought his AS/400 experience to bear in deploying a collection of servers that combines platforms from the past and the present-with masterful results.

THE BIG PICTURE

The Asian Art Museum has been a fixture of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park for 35 years. But when the public institution began to outgrow its old digs in the 1990s, something had to give. In 1994, the citizens of San Francisco voted to dedicate $52 million in public bonds to refurbishing the city's former Main Library, located in the Civic Center area, as the new home for the Asian Art Museum. (The museum also received private funding.) A team of architects was hired to redesign the facility, which was originally built in 1917, and reconstruction got under way. Due to California's history of antics with the Richter scale, the facility was fortified to withstand an 8.3 magnitude earthquake.

The museum, which debuted its new location in March 2003, holds nearly 15,000 works worth an estimated $4 billion. These paintings, sculptures, and other masterpieces represent 6,000 years of Asian history. The new facility contains nearly 40,000 square feet of exhibit space for these items, and includes a gift shop, a cafe, and classrooms for educational programs that are open to the community.

During the project planning phase, the museum made specifications for a new data and telecommunications infrastructure. It also wanted to provide state-of-the-art "customer-facing" technology in the form of multimedia kiosks that visitors could use to learn more about the exhibits. To support the number of applications this would involve, it was clear that the museum's aging Dell servers, primarily running various versions of Windows, would have to be replaced.But since the refurbishment project was bankrolled with a combination of public and private funding, the staff had to keep the tab-including personnel costs-within reason. Given the fact that the museum's IT department at the time consisted of Horio, one other full-time employee, and several part-time contractors, this would prove to be a challenge.

After devising a new data and telecommunications infrastructure plan, Horio and his team began the rollout for the updated facility. The new network, which is based on a Gigabit Ethernet backbone, links the main facility with a branch office located in Fox Plaza, about two blocks from the museum. A Cisco Catalyst 6509 switch resides at the core of the network. The infrastructure also includes 20 Catalyst 3524 switches, four Catalyst 2600 series routers, and two Catalyst VG 200s voice gateways. Two Cisco PIX firewalls stand guard in a redundant configuration.

There are two T1 lines to the PSTN, provided by SBC, in addition to analog backup lines. A T1 line links the museum to its branch office; another T1 from Equant provides connectivity to the Internet.

To reduce telecommunications costs, the museum converted to IP telephony. The bid-on both standard PBX systems and IP telephony-was initially sent to companies such as Cisco Systems, 3Com, and several smaller vendors, says Horio. Because the funding for the equipment came from the nonprofit segment of the budget, costs had to be kept to a minimum.

Ultimately, the pricing perks of Cisco's IP-based system were too good to pass up. "The IP phone system was cheaper than the traditional phone switch," says Horio. Also, because the system is easy to manage, it fell in line with the museum's goal of keeping administrative costs to a minimum, he notes.

One of the reasons Horio chose Cisco was that, in addition to beating out the competition on price, the company was the most flexible in working within the parameters of a nonprofit.The IP telephony system runs on Cisco's CallManager call processing software. Unified messaging capabilities are enabled via the company's Unity software. The museum has 165 Cisco IP phones distributed throughout its main and branch office locations.

To provide visitors with a more interactive experience, the museum purchased 17 multimedia kiosks. With the help of Key Information Systems (KIS, www.keyisit.com), a systems integration firm, the museum rolled out 13 kiosks by press time, with plans to implement the remaining four in the near future.

The kiosks are distributed throughout two floors of the museum. These kiosks have touchscreens that guide users through the system. Each kiosk has four different streaming audio/video presentations and a set of headphones for visitors to listen to the audio portion. The videos provide additional information on specific items in the museum's collection, such as historical background, depictions of the region where an item originated, and the work's significance in Asian culture.

KIS handled all aspects of the multimedia kiosk development project, including system design, the establishment of the system's database, development of the required applications, encoding of the video, and hardware deployment.

The streaming media runs on IBM's Content Manager and VideoCharger, the company's real-time streaming media platform, which is hosted on a dedicated server. The data stream is sent from the server to a Cisco switch located in the data-wiring closet on each floor. It then makes its way to client software on the appropriate kiosk. This software selects and controls the playback of the data stream.DATA ON DISPLAY

To provide the horsepower required by these and the museum's many other specialized applications, the creaky Dell servers had to be replaced with new systems. Due in part to his past experience with AS/400, Horio opted for midrange servers from IBM. The museum purchased seven systems from IBM's eServer series.

The eServer series includes two lines: the iSeries, IBM's replacement for the AS/400; and the xSeries, which replaces the Intel-based NetFinity and NUMA-Q servers.

The museum has two IBM iSeries servers and seven xSeries machines. The xSeries systems vary in size from 1U to 3U and support Windows and Linux.

The museum already has an i270 entry-level workgroup server, which now hosts Lotus Domino. A new, larger i820 was fitted with eight Integrated xSeries Servers, which are PCI-X blade servers that plug directly into the iSeries servers.The i820 is a 64-bit RISC-based departmental server that runs on OS/400. Via an Integrated xSeries Adapter (a PCI card), the i820 manages a smaller external x250 server. These 64-bit, 66MHz adapters enable multiple xSeries systems to connect to a single iSeries box via a 1Gbyte/sec link.

For the museum, the xSeries servers provided an alternative to running Windows on a large number of individual Intel servers. The xSeries blade servers use the OS/400-based iSeries' storage and management systems, but function as standalone Windows servers. This consolidation capability reduces administrative overhead by enabling the IT staff to manage the iSeries servers and the xSeries blade servers via the same interface. It also simplifies other tasks: for example, user IDs and passwords can be synchronized simultaneously on both platforms.

Since the iSeries servers and the xSeries blade servers can share disk space, storage management functions are also easier to perform. The systems can be backed up to a single tape drive, and the OS/400's job scheduling capability reduces the amount of time it takes to perform backups.

The systems also provide a major edge when it comes to fault tolerance. If one of the blades in the i820 fails, says Horio, he can quickly swap it out for a new one, thereby reducing the potential impact of downtime.

Being able to leverage the capabilities of the AS/400 in a Windows-based environment was one of Horio's primary goals for the project. "There are a lot of things I got used to in working in an AS/400 environment that didn't exist in the Windows environment," says Horio. "Most people working in a Windows environment don't understand the AS/400 mentality-they don't understand the benefits of midrange systems. Putting the blade in an iSeries provided the functionality of both worlds."The eServers' interoperability capabilities are particularly valuable since most of the museum's applications are Windows-based. In addition, because the museum's applications are based on different databases (Sybase and SQL Server) and operating systems, as well as different versions of those platforms, each application needs its own server. Dedicating each blade server to a separate application is much more efficient and economical than devoting a Wintel system to each one, says Horio.

The i820 provides file and print services, and an x250 system the museum already had on hand hosts a Citrix application. The x250 is connected to the i820 via the Integrated xSeries Adapter.

The i820 and its integrated blade servers also host a number of specialized applications, such as the TM VISTA online ticketing system, Blackbaud's Raisers Edge fundraising and membership management software, MIP accounting software, a Retail Pro point-of-sale application, Argus asset management software, and Meridian Project Systems's (MPS) building management and maintenance database.

Separate xSeries servers host Cisco CallManager, Cisco Unity, IBM Content Manager, IBM Video Charger, Websense filtering software, and Esker Software's Notes Fax Server.

While IBM won the contract in the end, it wasn't the only server vendor in contention. Horio initially considered going with updated Dell systems, but past problems with the company took it out of the running. "You call Dell up and you can't get any real support," says Horio. "Getting Dell to come out and fix a piece of equipment was also a little slow compared to IBM." In addition, the museum was interested in blade servers, which weren't available from Dell at the time. Finally, since the museum's applications required varying amounts of disk space, underutilization was a problem with some of the old Dell systems. The IBM servers let Horio allocate disk space to applications much more effectively than in the past, he notes.

Despite its sprawling scope, the rollout of the new network was accomplished by only a handful of folks, including the museum's IT staff, three independent contractors, and a team of three KIS employees. Although parts of the implementation process occurred as planned, some unanticipated events resulted in scheduling snafus. The building contractor kept pushing the completion date out, which caused a host of problems. In 2002, the IT staff had moved to the new location, with the expectation that the museum's other employees would soon follow. But due to the construction delays, things didn't go exactly as planned."We'd set up the infrastructure at the new facility, figuring that everyone else was going to move in by a certain date, and then they were stuck in the old building for another two months," says Horio. "We ended up not having enough bandwidth at the old location. The applications basically just died because of that. Everything just sort of slowed down."

But the problems didn't end there. Horio was behind the eight-ball when it came to negotiating with the telcos and ISPs about provisioning new lines for a cutover to the new network. Once the original move-in date was missed, it was like trying to hit a moving target. This was complicated by the service providers' long lead times for provisioning. If he had to do it over again, says Horio, "I would have put up another network rather than trying to do a cutover from one to the other."

As the museum's opening approached, the multimedia kiosk project was also running behind schedule. KIS had established the basic hardware and software infrastructure for the system over a span of several months, and took only about a week to install the systems in the museum. But KIS didn't receive all of the video to be encoded until shortly before the museum's opening date.

"The museum had people traveling all over the world filming these videos," says Julie Giersbach, project manager at KIS. "By the time we got them, it was a week before the opening."

After their initial work on the videos, the team had only two days to deploy them on site. Although KIS had performed staging and testing at its facility before implementing them on site, they didn't get to do a test run at the museum prior to the opening date.Fortunately, says Giersbach, "We got everything up and running for their opening night. It was pretty painless compared to how bad it could have been." The systems performed well, and any imperfections in the videos were subtle enough that the average visitor couldn't detect them, she notes. KIS is still tweaking the system to find the best possible encoding schemes.

Horio agrees that things would have been significantly less nerve-racking if they'd had the opportunity to tinker with the systems a bit more before the museum opened. "I would've liked to have had a little more testing time," he says. "We were still breaking the systems in while visitors were trying to use them."

New videos will continue to be supplied on an ongoing basis. KIS has trained the museum's IT staff to take over operation of the systems and perform tasks such as adding new videos and moving existing videos to different kiosks.

A major indicator of the project's success lay in the reaction of the museum's staff, says Giersbach. In the very subjective world of art, not everyone shares the same outlook on the role of technology. To some, it's a tool for enriching the visitor's experience; to others, it's an incongruous distraction.

"There was a division among the people at the museum who wanted the multimedia technology, and those who were opposed to it," she says. "But once it was up and running, they were excited to see that it was set up in a way that doesn't stand out. It fits into the environment."However, it wasn't long before one of the most surprising twists in the implementation process arose when kids met up with the kiosks. The museum hosts many tour groups, including students from elementary and high schools. In short order, some of the museum's younger visitors (primarily elementary school students) began hacking into the back-end systems through the kiosks. "These kids are pretty creative in terms of how they can break into the systems," says Horio. "It's amazing what they can do. We didn't fully anticipate that. Now we're trying to figure out ways of locking them out."

THE PRICE OF ADMISSION

According to Horio, the costs of the network infrastructure, the servers, the multimedia kiosk systems, and the IP phone system hardware and software totaled about $800,000.

Because the eServers were expected to involve less administrative overhead than a solely Wintel-based configuration with dedicated servers, says Horio, the IBM systems were viewed from the outset as part of a cost-avoidance strategy. "We looked at hardware as a way of reducing manpower costs," he says. "The goal was to keep the head count down and still get the best possible systems to keep things up and running."

The museum also accrued savings by altering its original data and telecommunications infrastructure strategy. Initially, the plan called for Category 3 wiring for voice and Category 5 for data. Later, the decision was made to convert everything to Category 5-a call that saved approximately $40,000 in wiring costs, says Horio.Horio believes the IP phone system will also result in hefty cost savings over the long run. For one thing, costs associated with moves, adds, and changes will be lower, he says. And due to its simplicity, the system doesn't require a full-time administrator, so the museum didn't have to pay for an additional employee to run it.

VISITORS WELCOME

As an institution that celebrates relics of the past, the museum plans to continue enriching its value to visitors in the future. One goal is to let the public access images of items in its collection via the Web; Horio says an imaging project targeted toward this objective will soon be under way.

In conjunction with KIS, the museum is also working on an application that will let online visitors check off boxes that indicate specific areas of interest (for example, ceramics and porcelains, paintings, bronze sculptures, arms and armor, and so on). The DB2 database containing this mailing list will then be filtered to target visitors whose interests coincide with upcoming events and exhibits. For instance, those interested in art from China might receive an e-mail notification prior to a special exhibit on Ching dynasty calligraphy.

On the infrastructure side, the museum is also considering the establishment of a wireless link between the main facility and the branch office, since there's line-of-sight between the two buildings, says Horio.But for now, Horio's own line-of-sight between the past and the present bodes well for the museum's ability to support its complex, heterogeneous applications in the future.

Elizabeth Clark, executive editor, can be reached at [email protected].

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