August 19, 2004

How a new Linux system bolstered a major art museum's presentation

Author: Tina Gasperson

San Francisco's Asian Art Museum, which houses the largest collection of Asian art in the Western world,is testing a Web site that will display digital photographs of paintings, sculpture, and other artistic creations worth a total of almost $4 billion. The site runs on SUSE Linux and IBM's iSeries hardware.

From its inception in 1966, the Asian Art Museum has operated in a wing of the de Young museum building at Golden Gate Park, sharing IT infrastructure as well as physical space with its more traditional sister. As the decades passed, it became clear that a spare wing was no longer sufficient to house the growing collection of Far Eastern treasures.

Bond passage paved the way

In 1994, San Francisco citizens voted yes to a $42 million bond issue that would pay to renovate an old library building and house the museum independently. The new Asian Art Museum opened on March 20, 2003.

Although the museum was partially supported by the City of San Francisco, it still depended on donations to fund operations. Money coming from the city went mainly to payroll for city employees working at the museum. Everything else -- including Horio's salary and the bulk of the operating expenses -- was funded by the Asian Art Museum Foundation.

"Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile":
Exhibit through Sept. 26 at San Francisco Asian Art Museum.

A lot of the time, depending on the generosity of others means making do with what you have. And what they had was a mix-and-match system consisting of Windows 95, Windows 98, and other versions of the operating system running on Dell hardware.

It wasn't a terribly stable environment, but it worked while they were in the old building. When it came time to move the huge Asian Art collection to the new building, a complete overhaul of the IT infrastructure was a must, since the museum would now have its own dedicated servers. Understandably, Jim Horio, the Asian Art Museum's CIO, was ready to do something different.

Although Horio and the museum were amenable to open source software, including Linux, much of the museum's front end couldn't go there because there weren't any alternatives to the customized ticketing, POS, and inventorying applications already in use. Additionally, the office staff used Lotus Notes for calendaring and messaging.

However, the museum wanted to digitize its collection and put it online, and Horio knew that it would take some serious computing power to showcase 15,000 objects on the Asian Art Museum Web site.

IBM donated hardware, support

So Horio went to IBM for help.

He had experience with iSeries servers from work he'd done while employed at another company, and knew the hardware's capabilities when it came to running multiple platforms. Horio told IBM what they wanted to do and the company agreed to donate two servers and technical support for the transition.

Horio decided on SUSE Linux to power the Web site's art collection database. "We've got a lot of images in an Apple environment that we want to migrate to Linux," Horio said. By putting the images in Linux, the museum will be able to share them with Windows and Apple environments during the transition. "We're using Linux as middleware."

That's only to start. As Horio is able to garner more disk space (he just got budget approval for more iSeries hardware), he'll put more and more of the museum's operations on Linux, including print and file server functions.

Horio is already noticing a marked increase in performance from the server running Linux. Instead of weekly reboots like they continue to experience with the Windows server, "it's been stable. We just turn it on and it runs."

Horio says the image database will be the largest of its kind online, and the only one running on Linux. Searchable by date, country or region of origin, artistic medium, or keywords, each page will display several objects with thumbnails and a short synopsis, and users can click through to a larger image with more information. The servers will load fairly high-resolution images to Web site visitors, but in the future Horio hopes to provide photographic quality images to scholars and other researchers, once there's plenty of disk space available.

Entire collection will eventually go on line

Eventually, he wants to put the entire collection online, but right now some 2,500 pieces are ready to go. "We can only show about 2,000 pieces at a time in the museum," Horio said. The rest of the collection is kept in storage and rotated out for display. "As we digitize pieces, this is the first step of a long-term project.

"If visitors miss something at the museum (because it is not in the current rotation) they can see it on the Web site."

Once the entire collection is in the database, Horio expects it to consume anywhere between 150 and 300 gigabytes of hard drive space.

Horio has beta testers -- museum curators -- hitting the server and the software hard. Speaking of the software, it's a Java database program that IBM wrote and donated to the museum. Horio hopes to complete testing of the Web site and its back end database by fall of 2004. "Once the curators say it's OK we're going to publish it," he said.

Horio said that the transition to Linux has been easy for him, even though he's a relative newbie.

"My background is os400. I think it would be harder for a straight Windows person with point and click, but if you come from a green screen environment, it's a piece of cake."

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