Lights, camera, action!

Working with an IT infrastructure more appropriate to the dark ages, the British Film Institute decided it was time for an...

Working with an IT infrastructure more appropriate to the dark ages, the British Film Institute decided it was time for an upgrade. Karl Cushing reports

Years of under-investment and a policy of "make do and mend" left London-based film promotion body the British Film Institute (BFI) with an IT system that was out of date and seriously lacking in functionality. By 1999 it became clear that the cracks could not be papered over any longer and the institute realised that what it needed was not just a bit of lippy and mascara but a full facelift.

To address the problem, in December 1999 the institute appointed a new head of IT, Richard Holford, with a remit to invest in new technology and bring its systems up to date. Holford inherited 10-15 years of "organic" growth. On top of the miscellaneous kit and a mish-mash of disparate databases that did not talk to one another were various aged applications, including an obsolete text-based messaging system called All In One from Digital Equipment.

Standardisation was a big problem, integration a distant dream and operational limitations - the All In One system couldn't handle e-mail attachments - the norm. It was also slow and unreliable with poor systems visibility.

Holford began by looking at the systems to see what could be used and what needed to be replaced. It soon became obvious that they would have to change just about everything, including the network infrastructure. His team then spent six months looking at companies they were interested in working with, sounding them out and picking their brains before putting the contract out to tender.

From a shortlist of five suppliers, the BFI whittled it down to the one. The scope of the project was large. As well as a new IP network, the institute wanted to install a server farm, built on site, implement thin-client architecture, replace its old green-screen terminals and install enterprise tools to increase its control over the network. "We wanted a company that was big enough to deal with our problems," says Holford. "I wanted a one-stop, turn-key solution."

The BFI chose systems integrator Prime Business Solutions. Holford says he was impressed by its level of understanding of the business' pressures, its willingness to be flexible and the fact that it backed up what it said with some very good reference visits to existing clients. "If I had to make that decision again I would go with the same company," he says. Prime undertook to get involved at all stages of the project, offering project management, consultancy and design, installation, configuration and support.

The implementation process began in November 2000. A project plan was drafted with a view to going live in June 2001. Holford says a key point was that the institute insisted that there would be several stages of testing by Prime before the hardware was implemented. The institute, which runs the National Film Theatre, is not a regular nine-to-five organisation. As well as the night and evening activities at its locations it hosts a film festival and other special events. Switching off its IT systems for tests was not an option.

The first area to be tackled was upgrading the institute's local area networks and the wide area network connecting its three sites. Prime replaced obsolete networking kit in the remote sites, replaced and standardised a lot of the cabling and created a single, convergence-ready IP-based network based on Cisco technology.

Standardisation was a key requirement in the project and it was decided early on that MS Office would be the core software suite and Windows 2000 the standard operating system. This policy was further reinforced by the decision to employ other Microsoft kit such as Active Directory, Exchange 2000 and Windows 2000 Advanced Servers. Another key requirement was improved network control. This goal - coupled with the pressing need to keep down costs and limit the total cost of ownership - led the institute to the thin-client model.

When the deal was signed with Prime, the BFI was already looking at thin-client technology and had begun a pilot project based on Citrix Metaframe architecture. The decision was made to continue with the Citrix system. However, the thin-client architecture roll-out would prove to be the least satisfactory part of the project and there were problems almost immediately.

As part of the move to thin client, the institute wanted to replace its old green-screen terminals and ordered 120 Netier XL workstations. Inexplicably, about 10%-15% simply did not work or soon failed. "They were very, very poor," he says. "The number of failures we had out of that initial batch of 120 has really made us stop and think," he says. Holford is still looking at rolling out thin client across the BFI though and the institute is now looking at using Wyse Winterm Windows-based terminals instead.

Fortunately the rest of the project was less problematic. The factory acceptance testing took place at Prime's facilities and, although some time was lost, it was relatively trouble free. Holford says the Prime engineers were always on hand to transfer skills to institute staff. Meanwhile, the institute reorganised its communications room to accommodate the servers and network equipment and enlisted training firm Global Debut to train its staff. As well as the IT staff, the fact that the institute was moving from a text-based messaging system to a Microsoft-based system with a graphical user interface meant that all its 450 employees had to be trained in a fairly short time.

All things considered, "It was a fairly smooth implementation," says Holford. "We were very happy with it. There really was no hair-pulling." A key factor was the pre-implementation testing. "They got it right pretty much first time," he says. "I think it shows they'd done their homework." Holford's team and the Prime engineers sometimes had to work into the morning but he says that was more because they needed to keep the institute running all the time rather than any technical glitches or configuration difficulties.

There were still a few snags in store, however. The Exchange server fell over a few times and there were some storage problems later on, resulting in about 4-5 hours of downtime. Holford believes that was reasonable, however, considering the scale of change. There are still minor snags but Holford explains that this is largely due to the fact that the institute had to keep legacy kit, such as printers, which can present problems with Citrix.

Despite such minor glitches, Holford says that, overall, the project has been a big success. Security and control have increased, as all applications are now deployed and delivered centrally; staff can send e-mails with attachments instead of resorting to private e-mail accounts; bottlenecks have been ironed out; performance and reliability improved; and staff are more motivated. The BFI is now evaluating a set of network and enterprise management tools purchased from Prime and, in a separate project, it is looking to capitalise on the improvements to unlock the true potential of its archives.

The institute has begun digitising its archives and developing an integrated database. It has the largest collection of films and related material in the UK, mostly held at its site in Berkhamsted. Its film and filmographic collections include more than 275,000 feature films dating from 1894; 200,000 television programmes; 7 million photographs; 15,000 movie posters; 7 million film stills; and film-related items like costumes and story boards. That information is currently held in a number of different databases and formats and only about 1% has been digitised. Not surprisingly, Holford says "it's a massive job".

The internal project has been running since April 2001 and institute staff are now working on linking the filmographics database with the technical records database, which contains information such as which films are held and what condition they are in. Holford hopes to have a working, read-only system for internal use by June and this will help with the data cleansing process. He is confident that by February 2003 the BFI will have a fully functional integrated database.

The project is central to the BFI's future, Holford says. "What all this means - particularly the integrated database project - is that we will be able to get to grips with our main assets and leverage the collections we have," he says. "It's really about making the best use of our resources and getting them to work together."

The focus puller
Years of under-investment had left the British Film Institute (BFI), a non-profit making organisation which promotes film and television culture in the UK, with an IT infrastructure that was out of date, unreliable, lacking in functionality and totally incapable of meeting the demands of the organisation and its users
Solution: The institute employed the services of systems integrator Prime Business Solutions to carry out a complete overhaul of its networks by building an Internet protocol-based, convergence-ready network, implement thin-client architecture and standardise software and hardware.

Upgrade benefits
  • Security and control have increased with all applications deployed and delivered centrally

  • Staff can send and receive e-mails with attachments

  • Bottlenecks have gone

  • Performance has improved: the one minute download time for a 100Mbyte file has been reduce to about 11 seconds

  • Improved morale

  • Improved reliability

  • Network is convergence-ready.

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