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Arts center's network infrastructure hits right note with Wi-Fi, FMC

A CIO used every penny of a budgeting windfall to build the network infrastructure for a nonprofit performing arts center while never wasting a dime. Wi-Fi and a fixed-mobile communications (FMC) system are among the perks helping performers, patrons and staff members stay up to date.

As director of IS at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, James J. Thompson had landed a job most IT executives would kill for. He would be overseeing the build out of a network infrastructure for a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility with -- this was the kicker -- awesome capital funding that was "almost unprecedented for a nonprofit art organization," he said.

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There was just one caveat: His $2.5 million budget was a one-shot, "use it or lose it" deal, part of the $472 million that donors had raised over a 25-year period to build the center.

Thompson did what any savvy CIO would do: He used every penny and overprovisioned network capacity, big time. "I had to provide for the future," he said. "While I had the money, I wanted to put something in place that would last a decade or more. I didn't want to have to replace those core switches or the phone system in five or eight years." As a nonprofit art organization, a performing arts center is a luxury item, the first thing donors cut out of their budgets when times get tough -- as now, for instance.

Thompson's strategy makes particular sense for midrange firms with small IT budgets and little fat to live off of in lean times, according to Phil Redman, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. In the next year or so, midmarket IT executives will "do what they have to do" to maintain critical applications and services, "but they won't do major revamps unless they absolutely have to."

The center's wired network comprises two 3Com 10 Gbps core switches, multigigabit links between the cores and wiring closets, and gigabit-per-second links to the desktop. While Thompson has not measured bandwidth utilization, there have been no signs of congestion and no outages in the two years since the center came online, he said.

Ensuring enough bandwidth, while critical, was just one piece of Thompson's vision for the networking infrastructure. Formerly the IT director at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, he is well-acquainted with the communications needs of the performers, contractors, technicians and audience members who visit the center. He used his funding windfall to address those needs on a level that is unusual if not unique in the world of performing arts.

For example, audiences can view opera translations on screens installed on seatbacks. An engineer sitting in the lighting booth can communicate via mobile phone with directors and production people watching lighting effects onstage. Actors can call home from their dressing rooms. Audience members milling about in the lobby can surf the Web on their BlackBerrys.

Accomplishing all of this was not without challenges, Thompson acknowledged.

Starting from scratch with brand-new buildings simplified things somewhat: no need to integrate new systems with old ones, rip out old wiring or depreciate old equipment. With the exception of a Nortel private branch exchange and a BlackBerry RIM server, 3Com Corp. supplied all the networking equipment, which "gave us ease of integration and unified management tools," Thompson said. 3Com was chosen because "they gave us good bang for the buck compared with other major manufacturers."

While I had
the money, I wanted to put something in place that would last a decade or more.

James J. Thompson
director of ISAdrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
The "quirky" artistic nature of the buildings posed a few connectivity problems, however, Thompson noted. His team had to install 26 wiring closets around the campus, to get around "strange angles" that made wiring difficult. The architect didn't want unsightly outlets in the lobby walls, so Thompson's team had to install Wi-Fi in the ceiling.

Furthermore, there are a number of areas, like performers' dressing rooms, where cell phone service can't reach. Thompson solved the problem by installing a fixed-mobile communications system that enables mobile devices to receive both Wi-Fi and cellular service.

Security was also a concern, given that audience members, contractors and other outsiders use the same wireless network as in-house staff members. 3Com's wireless access points use ID authentication to assign different user groups to different virtual LANs, ensuring that only staff members can access internal databases and other sensitive material.

Was all that trouble and expense worth it? The center's near-ubiquitous communications services definitely make productions run more smoothly, Thompson said. Further, they heighten the audience's experience and please employees, he added. Whether that translates into bigger box-office numbers remains unclear, however.

On the other hand, the center is starting to see increased revenues from hosting business conferences, for which reliable, anywhere network access is a necessity, not a perk. Connectivity was the main reason a British company chose the center as its venue for a conference on next-generation website programming, Thompson said. "They told us about 600 people would be attending the keynote, most of them with iPhones or laptops. We said, 'No problem.'"

Elisabeth Horwitt is a contributing writer based in Waban, Mass. Write to her at editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.

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