“I’m always looking at ways of making things better,” says Louis Brady, head of IT at the National Portrait Gallery. “In the last three years we have upgraded the infrastructure and hardware so that the National Portrait Gallery has a firm foundation and the IT needs to be almost invisible.”
The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) has a mission statement that defines its role in our national culture: ‘To promote through the medium of portraits the appreciation and understanding of the men and women who have made and are making British history and culture, and ... to promote the appreciation and understanding of portraiture in all media’. The gallery in St Martin’s Lane, London has the largest collection of portraits in the world, with the bulk of its collection on display at the site behind Trafalgar Square. Established in 1856, the NPG also shares its collections with the National Trust and has travelling displays.
Funded by the government, in recent years the NPG has also worked closely with companies, trusts, foundations and individuals to ensure it has the right levels of funding required to preserve the collection. Although the main gallery is free to visit, it also has revenue streams from special exhibitions, shops, catering and an events business. Director Sandy Nairne has pushed the NPG’s involvement in education and research into portraits, which has included a digitisation programme to make its collections available on the internet. In 2009, 1,961,843 visitors visited the gallery.
“When I came here the role was to upgrade the infrastructure as it was old and needed to be replaced and the budget was already in place,” Brady says of his role as at the NPG, which he joined in 2007.
“I did an audit and I found a lot of the servers needed to be replaced, so I put in VMware, which really gave us some breathing space. We also introduced Office 2007 to improve usability standards and introduced a power management tool so that at 10pm all the PCs are patched and then powered down.” He also introduced a new FTP server, storage area networking, Microsoft SQL databases, a new telecoms network and brought Sophos in to help with the chronic levels of spam that the gallery was receiving.
A key part of the IT infrastructure that CIOs are constantly looking to upgrade and develop is the IT staff and Brady added staff training to his strategy. “The team needed more professional training so they are now all Microsoft-certified,” he says.
Brady’s IT estate includes a Microsoft retail management system, financial and HR back-office systems, ticketing systems for exhibitions, managing the outsourced website hosting contract, purchasing systems and the Microsoft Exchange 2003 basis for email. The databases that hold the digitisation programme are critical for the gallery to achieve its educational remit.
Brady’s user base consists of 250 users on 220 PCs. The IT team of five has begun to use an ITIL problem escalation management approach alongside the Numara Track-It helpdesk application it started using in 2006. The team gets around 250 helpdesk calls a month and is using ITIL and Track-IT to reduce the daily fire-fighting calls by between 25 and 35 per cent.
“The remote control agent has been one of the most beneficial, because although we are on one site, there are two buildings with lots of winding corridors to go through and users can in effect be quite far away. This capability saves us between two and three hours each day as we don’t have to physically get up from our desks and go to staff and fix the problem.
“The inventory module is also very important as it lets us record the NPG’s whole IT estate and ensure that we have an up-to-date record of what software is installed on each piece of equipment and that we are 100 per cent compliant. It’s really helped when it comes to reporting, as the comprehensive reports that it produces are important in ensuring that we are delivering a good service,” he says.
As a strategic decision, Brady rates the introduction of ITIL and a helpdesk and inventory management tool. “It’s definitely helped us free up more time and resources with the IT team and it’s also helped us improve the communications within our department,” he says.
Looking ahead Brady would like to introduce Microsoft Dynamics as the NPG’s financial system, which will improve integration with the Microsoft retail management systems already in use. He would also like to upgrade the NPG email infrastructure from Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2010, and he has considered outsourcing email management as well, but at present, there just isn’t the budget.
“Exchange 2003 is slowing down and we could do with the improved performance. With IT there is always something you could do,” he admits.
Like many IT leaders Brady is interested in cloud computing, but wants to see more definite examples of it in operation.
“I think eventually everything will go to the cloud, but people are not sure how much they can trust it at present. For NPG I am not sure about how you can go from one vendor to another, so with myself it is a matter of wait and see.”
Although there will be efficiency savings from standardising on Dynamics, when we met Brady in the gallery he was preparing for the savage cuts planned for the public sector and in particular the arts. Brady was sanguine. “I’m driving down costs all the time anyway. We know cuts are on the way,” he admits. Prior to the coalition government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, NPG was receiving 40 per cent of its revenue from the government while 60 per cent was self-generated – a figure the organisation can be proud of.
“I’ve done a zero-based budget. The gallery needs the money to do its stuff,” Brady says, accepting that some IT projects may have to be taken off the wall to ensure the gallery can continue to invest in art rather than technology.
NPG is the second national treasure on Brady’s CV. The softly spoken and relaxed Dubliner joined NPG from the Natural History Museum (NHM), where he was Head of IT Infrastructure. At the Kensington palace of natural wonders and dinosaur skeletons that make every child’s jaw drop, he oversaw the installation of a major SAN and tape library to give the museum and its visitors one terabyte of "very fast” storage.
Brady explained that this project had to deliver tiered levels of performance so that key documents had rapid access while lesser used documents sat on a tape-based second tier. The SAN also had to support the digitisation of 28 million insects. These were being captured so that researchers, teachers, students and school pupils around the world could see specimens and read the considerable amounts of research the museum has on the creatures.
“A lot of the world that is rich in biodiversity doesn’t have access to books and great libraries, so this makes the information accessible to them. There is an internet microscope that has allowed lecturers in other countries to connect to the Natural History Museum collection and teach about the animal in question.”
Before joining the NHM Brady ran IT for a Berkshire school. He moved into the educational world after an 18-year career at Reuters Financial Software and you sense that with a young family, he really enjoys being part of it.
“In arts and education it is nice, I am helping, whereas at Reuters I was helping traders make money. In a school you can see the kids using and learning, you can see your work having a direct involvement on the organisation,” he says of his post-finance career.
To keep abreast of the challenges of running the IT of a world-famous art collection, Brady is involved in the London Museums and Galleries Heads of IT forum, and even makes time to be a trustee of Age Concern in his home borough of Ealing, helping with the operations of two day centres and an advice centre for the aged.
Away from the city Brady escapes with his two teenage children to the Chilterns for walks or enjoys a good book or opera.
Although budget cuts loom, Brady is enjoying the IT canvas he has at the NPG and wants to keep proving that IT makes a difference to arts and education, no matter what economic epoch we live in.