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Heritage online

Heritage online

Neil Cowley’s job is enough to make many a CIO jealous. But maintaining Te Papa’s 24x7 business, exhibitions and online resources takes more than just an above average budget and an enthusiast’s fondness for technology

Inside every CIO there’s an old tech-head who dreams of having large resources to spend on technology. All in the interests of business, of course.Seriously, though, Te Papa’s Neil Cowley has probably come as close to having the dream job that most tech-orientated CIOs might relish. Try to explain that to him that and he will tell you that it ain’t so at all. Yes, his 8% budget, measured as a percentage of expenditure, is probably twice that of most other CIOs. But the museum’s needs are unique, and it certainly isn’t all fun when you are running a high-bandwidth, high-demand operation that’s online for 375 days a year, 24 hours a day. In fact, it’s enough to make you downright sober.

Cowley’s interest in information technology began in the early, fun days of desktop- computing. We’re talking about 1980, when his father bought a computer once affectionately known as a Trash-80, or TRS80. Cowley’s struggles with this early PC added up to a profound influence that saw him take up computing as a career. Then came the Commodore Amiga, once the wunderkind of multimedia. That, too, sparked and broadened Cowley’s interest. A few years later Cowley invested in a technical and design marvel known as the Apple Macintosh, probably the most advanced desktop platform of its time. Later came Microsoft Windows, eventually to evolve into a reliable delivery platform. So much for the heady beginnings.

Today Cowley sports a suit and tie. In the years since his toying with home computers he has worked in software development, as a pre-sales consultant, as a technical director and as a technology strategy leader. The past three years have been as Te Papa’s manager for technology and development.

The establishment of Te Papa seven years ago has thrust the museum – in existence since 1865 -- into prominence, he says. Staff are employed in many roles – perhaps most obviously as researchers, collection managers, curators, conservators. Others serve heritage institutions, including iwi, around the country. Still more can be found helping educational institutions, providing a wide variety of materials. Over the next few years, Cowley says, the collection and community areas will continue to rise in prominence. The strong community effort will mean the museum will become more involved in other areas of the country, such as Auckland. Meanwhile, the museum’s most traditional role is as custodian of the country’s treasures, while an experienced division focuses on designing and planning exhibitions, events and related activities. It all adds up a huge area of responsibility, prescribed by government regulation and, where applicable, supported in both Maori and English. And all available, or in the process of becoming available, over the internet.

Indeed, the internet has created its own impetus, driving expectations to have the entire collection available online. It all began in 1997 with Knowledge Net, a browser-based online exhibitions object catalogue. It remains a good educational resource, says Cowley, but it no longer addresses all the demands for access to collections information. Education providers, for example, want to be free to use the collections to devise their own content. In line with technology advances, Te Papa also needs to accommodate different and innovative presentation formats – PC interactive, PDA, web browser and large displays. Finally, Te Papa is aware that it needs to support New Zealand cultural-sector initiatives such as the Culture and Heritage Portal (www.matapihi.org.nz) and the Encyclopaedia of NZ (www.teara.govt.nz).

Collections management

“The key issue for Te Papa is its 10-year-old collections management system,” says Cowley. “When this was first planned there was no suitable museum application on the market. It was all done by custom development, and this situation has actually worked quite well until information needed to be exchanged with other systems.”

After many months of searching the museum has selected an Australian solution known as KE EMu, which Cowley describes as an ERP solution for the museum sector.

“It handles more than just the collections activities,” he says. “It handles related activities such as exhibitions and media. KE EMu comes with web server templates out of the box – a rather nice capability compared with what we had. It allows us to swiftly develop searchable web browser views of the collection. An extranet option will also make this information available to our collection partners.”

Cowley describes the KE EMu initiative as probably the most important project under way at the museum at the moment. It might not be the most glamorous but it will underpin Te Papa’s activities for the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, Te Papa’s Collections Online project aims to provide expanded web access to collections information from the end of this year. Cowley says the museum has hundreds of thousands of items in its collections and wishes to make them all available over the web. At this point the number of items available to viewers is about 7000, a lot more than most people recognise. New items are progressively being added to the collection as they need to be accessed. Audio/video programme material is also going into the archive. It all adds up to vast storage needs, especially with the data being captured at an extremely high resolution. Each image master amounts to about 400MB in size.

As can be imagined, this huge archiving task is not something Cowley wants to repeat too often. The museum already has a 140-year history, and he hopes the digital masters will be around far into the museum’s future. In the past the museum had skimped to reduce storage requirements for archives. Under the new policy, skimping on New Zealand’s heritage is out. The challenge is to find a technology that will go the distance. “It’s likely that the data we create here will be migrated from system to system in the future,” says Cowley. “So we needed a solution that could outlive KE EMu itself. We needed a proven archiving programme that would withstand the test of time.”

After what Cowley describes as a fair bit of searching, Te Papa’s technical team believes the only viable solution on the market today is ultra-density optical storage, an industrial-grade medium based on blue laser technology. The disks are in a write-once format and are expected to have a 30-year lifespan. The technology is not entirely new – earlier generations have already been proven in the field. At less than $100 for a 30GB disk, the price is not unreasonable. Up to 128 disks in an automated near-line storage library from Hewlett-Packard will provide 3.8 terabytes of information.

“We don’t know exactly how long it will take to put the images online,” says Cowley. “We are adding items to the collection: perhaps the requirements will increase. The solution needs to be scalable enough to allow sensible investment, yet be flexible enough to enable us to add additional storage later. The architecture can be easily scaled up to 10 terabytes.”

But archiving is only one aspect of the capture process. Te Papa is also investing in a high-speed SAN that will provide access to lower-resolution image derivatives. Derivative images will be used on the website and in other areas.

Te Papa is already reaping a satisfying harvest from the effort it has put into its website, which it now recognises as a key delivery platform. For Cowley, it has been a challenge getting to that point. So far this year, site visitations are up 15% on last year, with most people going online for learning resources, information about what’s on and access to the collections. “At least 25% of visitors are repeat visitors and we are noting a steady increase in the proportion of access from overseas,” says Cowley. “You could say we have saturated the domestic market. I am not sure that is the case but certainly people planning to visit New Zealand seem to be using our resources, and that’s a plus.”

Cowley says a decision was made early on to have the site heavily themed in culture. A Maori welcome and design feature prominently on the opening page and content is provided in both English and Maori. As Cowley says, Te Papa is committed to the bicultural experience.

Powering the site is Microsoft’s Content Management Server, chosen because of the number of development partners who were comfortable with the platform. Cowley expects the server’s .Net compatibility will help to ensure a migration path. “Perhaps we are a little far ahead here but we wanted to be sure we never found ourselves in a situation where we would have to manually convert huge resources to take content across to a new system. I think there are quite a few systems going in now that will potentially run into this issue of migration from a custom content platform. That’s something we won’t have to worry about in the future.”

“I like it a lot”

Cowley’s brief is to continue to leverage technology for the benefit Te Papa’s customers. “It’s actually quite a nice brief,” he says with a smile. “I like it a lot. It gives us flexibility.”

One of those flexible goals is to exploit new technology as it becomes available. Cowley says Te Papa has long had a reputation for delivering technology to deliver a unique experience. But unless it continues to innovate it will fall behind.

So far, high satisfaction rates have suggested that customers are happy with what Cowley and his team have done. Internet access has recently been installed on the museum floor for Te Papa’s business clients. This innovation includes internet-enabled network booths, wireless LAN access points and internet kiosk access so that people can check their email. “The important we are trying to do is to keep our clients connected while they are in the building. We want to be the most online museum in the country.”

Cowley says the museum is about to implement a solution known as the HP Virtual Classroom. This will allow people share an online environment, exchange documents and chat online. It will be used for distance education, particularly within the education sector and among other teaching institutions. Armed with the online information, some users might be able to cut back on travel costs. The museum, on the other hand, is having to spend heavily to ease access for users. That means spending on hardware, digitising content and packaging it for web delivery, using HTML and Flash technologies.

Other advancing technologies will see customers having more immersive experiences via high-quality audio and video display systems. These will include multi-user touch screens where people can become involved in interactive activities.

Robotics are also on Cowley’s list. In fact, some are already in use in presentations such as the one involving earthquakes. Another recent innovation has been in the area of sound, involving sound being beamed into specific areas with minimal impact on surrounding areas. “We are paying very close attention to this technology,” says Cowley. “Imagine being able to set up different language programmes in different areas of a room to cater for different audiences.” He also expects to be able to show projections of objects in 3D. This would work particularly well with objects that would otherwise be too fragile to be made available. Yet another possibility for visitors is to be able to print pictures onto different materials.

“Some of the technologies and solutions we are getting involved in don’t actually exist in the market. Innovation is required. A case in point is the use of kiosks. Te Papa wanted a touchscreen kiosk that one or two people could react with, one where they could interact while standing up or sitting down. We looked around internationally and found a number of devices, including some clever ones that allowed large screens to be moved around, but the ergonomics and friendliness we needed just weren’t there. So we had to innovate, and it took us 18 months of development to create our unique Tai Awatea kiosk design. This solution utilised all our standard development and hardware components. It can accommodate two people and is wheelchair-accessible. I believe the design is world-class.”

Another innovation Te Papa has been looking at is the use of mobile devices. Cowley says the intention is to provide a more personal experience that people can complete in their own time. He shows off a Compaq iPaq PDA featuring video content as well as a gallery guide. Content has been prepared by staff on the Microsoft Content Management Server. Cowley hopes that mobile devices will also encourage visitors to provide feedback so they can have a direct influence over what they see or experience.

Where possible, Cowley is avoiding technologies and custom development that will result in orphan environments, unable to be ported elsewhere. “What we are focusing on is something that could potentially be re-usable in future environments. We don’t want to come up with something that will be tricky to maintain.”

Critical services

Listening to him talk, any CIO would have nightmares about storage and network requirements for such a huge multimedia environment. And if that isn’t enough, consider that the museum is built on reclaimed land that is vulnerable to earthquakes – an ever-present fear in Wellington. Nearly as fearful is the spectre of a damaging raid by a malicious hacker.

The storage network alone is critical to Te Papa’s operations. “We need to factor in volume expansion challenges, backup challenges and specific server dependency risk,” says Cowley. “In our case we are running with an EVA3000 from HP and this has allowed us to migrate our data from our direct attached storage environment.”

Backup is another key concern. With the amount of data being generated daily it has been challenging to keep it all backed up. The overnight backup window continues to not be enough, especially with storage growth at its current rate. The snapshot facility provided by the SAN environment will allow the museum to back up continuously throughout the day. Even then it is a challenge with storage growth at its current rate.

Coming back to network security issues, Cowley says the plan is to build all critical services off the SAN, allowing staff to easily shift them to another server in case of a failure. Using this solution, 6TB can be easily reallocated out as required. “I don’t know how many people are using that as a solution but I see it as a good way of eliminating highly customised environments and servers, rather than run the risk of having all of those fail and take out the operation for a few hours.”

Saving files on the desktop is not an option at Te Papa. The museum recently made a decision to install a Cisco gigabit LAN to get sufficient network capacity for the next few years. Cowley’s general strategy is to aim for over-capacity wherever possible to achieve maximum performance. All the network backbone links, even those across the city, are based on one or more gigabit fibre circuits. Everyone in the organisation has a minimum of 100Mbit/s to the desktop, allowing them to open files without delay. Specialist groups such as the photography teams receive a gigabit link. While the preference is for a fixed fibre network, wireless still does have a role. Cowley says it is used primarily to extend users to the network rather than as a network replacement policy.

Security is a costly business for the museum. However, the cost of an outage could be huge, as could be the political ramifications if the network were breached. “We don’t go there,” says Cowley. “To reduce risk, files and documents are intercepted and scanned at least twice at gateway, server and desktop levels. And we don’t rely on a single security vendor.”

Cowley can recall only three security incidents – all of them minor and all of them contained effectively – during the past three years. One involved a power user and another involved a laptop that went offsite. Future projects in the security area involve a firewall solution with full hardware redundancy and alternative network routing to an ISP. The intention is to ensure that an incident or outage – even one involving overloading -- at any single point will not disrupt services. Cowley is also looking at two-factor authentication to reduce password-only risks. This latter remedy could involve a hardware key or software token.

“The environment itself is locked down through Active Directory policies, and we don’t allow user application installs. Nor do we allow local disk storage.” Cowley says PCs and notebooks are structured via Symantec’s Ghost and an auto deployment solution, but they are also treated as disposable assets. Replacements and upgrades are performed with minimal effort.

“The network does permit things to be deployed pretty quickly. We can get a new PC on the desktop and built within 15 minutes, and overall the reliability of this standard environment is quite good. We use Windows XP and Office 2000 on the desktop, although later this year we are moving up to Office 2003. The mechanics are quite straightforward. About 80% of the time involved in the upgrades and rollouts relates to user training and familiarisation.”

Exceptional team

Cowley credits a large part of the success of his operation to the quality of his team. “They are exceptional and we have a low turnover,” he says. He also gives credit to his strong partnership with suppliers. Some relationships even involve bringing in partners to talk about what they would do with the business. “We let our technology partners influence what we do,” he says. “Maybe that’s a bit risky in some cases but we keep a check on that. We have certainly found that it has paid off in terms of innovation.”

One way of ensuring things run smoothly is to stick to a policy of not going bleeding edge. Cowley says he is also careful not to invest in technologies and solutions that are nearing the end of their life. A good example of this policy is the museum’s decision to go for a gigabit solution. Cowley was willing to invest in it only after it had become fairly mainstream. This considered approach also meant he could take on the technology after its price had settled.

“The reason we could do it was because the solution we had in place was good enough. It was high-bandwidth but it was also very expensive. Timing, I think, is everything in IT. I would make a case for putting a solution in place at a particular moment in time…”

Ultimately, the final arbiters of Te Papa’s success are the community who make use of it. The museum is required by government to have a certain number of visitors, just as it is required to make its information available online. Cowley says 80%-90% of visitors coming to Te Papa give it an eight out of 10 rating. “That in itself justifies the investment we are doing.”

Other CIOs might look jealously at Te Papa’s budget and advanced technologies. They might also envy Cowley’s innovative approach. Yes, he acknowledges, the job can be fun. But make no mistake: it also carries huge responsibilities.

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