See also: Imperial War Museum's Ian Crawford on ordering data

A £1m government grant to help the Imperial War Museum monetise its vast multimedia archive gave its Head of ICT Ian Crawford the opportunity for a root and branch infrastructure upgrade.

Part of that project was bringing the Museum's storage capabilties in London and Cambridgeshire up to date.

The collections management system Crawford deployed to support the archive of over 22,000 hours of film and video, 11 million photographs, plus a mountain of paper documents, is supported by a tape-based storage facility, supplied by Spectralogic, using Network Attached Storage for easy retrieval.

Crawford explains that the museum has roughly 80 terabytes of Network Attached Storage in London, mirrored overnight to a similar repository in Duxford. The tape library is capable of storing around 10 times that amount, but even this is scalable to 1.5 petabytes, just by the acquisition of more tapes.

250 days of film
Crawford explained that an hour’s worth of archive-quality digitised film footage takes about 250 gigabytes of storage, so 1.5 petabytes is the equivalent of over 6000 one-hour films.

He is working on the assumption that the storage requirement is going to grow by 2-3 terabytes a year as the museum’s departments work on digitising their records.

Academia is not always known for being the most enthusiastic adopter of new working practices, so was it hard to sell the infrastructure upgrade to his business-line peers?

Crawford needed extra funds from them above the £1m development grant. It has turned out to be twice as much again in fact, plus on-going maintenance fees that bring his budget to around two per cent of the museum’s annual budget.

Crawford assured me that his peers understand the IT need. He put forward a plan based on best-of-breed suppliers, with whom he could trade on the IWM name to gain competitive rates.

Network infrastructure providers include Cisco, HP and IBM. Desktop systems are provided by Microsoft. It is a virtualised environment based on VMware.

Crawford believes that he is getting a better return on his investment by using top-tier suppliers that he can rely on.

His IT team is small, but specialised, with much of the systems he is buying in designed to minimise the routine maintenance overhead and allows him to recruit talented people enthusiastic about working on such a complex project for such a prestigious organisation.

“We’ve got a central team in London that manages the five sites [the original Lambeth Road buildings in South London, the airfield at Duxford in Cambridgeshire, the cruiser HMS Belfast, moored in the Thames, the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall a museum in Manchester’s Salford Quays],” says Crawford.

“It’s interesting work for the staff. We aren’t bleeding edge, but we are getting there.”

For the future, Crawford’s biggest concern is managing the data explosion. The museum already has a remit for reaching out to the wider public, and its researchers are approached all the time by people uncovering more military records in family members’ papers or requesting information about a relative’s military past.

Crawford has installed an IBM Tivoli storage management system to control the digital asset management system, but he expects it to be used to manage business data as well.

Crawford is also putting together a business case for a Customer Relationship Management system which will hopefully be implemented over the next two years.

“There was no point in considering anything that until we had a good infrastructure,” he says. “Now we have, we can start doing some clever stuff with business application delivery.”

Crawford was the ideal man to take this project on to transform these management systems.

He had already gained experience of working at the sort of scale the IWM needed, having spent 16 years on the biggest archiving project of the last century at the British Library.

The library’s remit was around preserving important historical records in a similar way, so he already knew the user culture.

“My background was in infrastructure and network design, so I welcomed the challenge at the IWM,” he says.

Moving the British Library to its home next to London’s St Pancras Station required an industrial-strength computing environment, he recalls.

It was there that he became familiar with the advantages of the JANET X.25 network that he went on to use at IWM.

Library monitor
Crawford joined the library as part of the IT operations team involved in moving the body’s collections from a number of locations across the capital to the new building in North London, and then stayed on at the new location in 1996 to oversee IT operations as a manager.

While he was there he helped to deploy the fast WAN ATM network technology for which the library became something of a poster child at the time.

The IWM is best known for its big objects, such as ships, tanks and aeroplanes, and for commemorating momentous events.

Crawford clearly relishes an IT transformation project of a scale that befits the surroundings he works in, and recognises the documents and images that describe the lives of the individuals who operated the machines in the museum’s collection are just as important as the machines themselves

But is it just the data-management challenge that kept him there for nearly six years and counting? Was he not also attracted to the job by all the big boys’ toys?

He says no, but as we walk around the restoration hanger with wings and fuselages stacked up like massive model kits waiting to be assembled, he is able to identify each of the planes and explain some of their histories without much trouble.

Perhaps some of that plane-buffery has rubbed off on him after all.