Bringing TIFF to the cutting edge with cloud technology

When Kalyan Chakravarthy joined the Toronto International Film Festival as director of IT, it was a not-for-profit organization mainly focused around a 10-day annual film festival, with a few smaller festivals sprinkled throughout the year.
But last year, TIFF moved into its new permanent home in downtown Toronto, called TIFF Bell Lightbox, bringing Canadian and international cinema to movie lovers 365 days a year. It just so happened that the move took place in September 2010, during its busiest time of year: during the festival.

Leading up to the move, Chakravarthy, winner of ComputerWorld Canada’s IT Manager of the Year award in the small and medium business category, found himself dealing with outdated technology and inefficient processes. So he embraced a different approach — moving from legacy, in-house infrastructure to cloud-based technology.
“These were radical ideas, such as moving to cloud,” said Chakravarthy. “Typically a not-for-profit is not on the cutting edge.” He attributes the success of the project to the support of TIFF’s CFO, as well as his IT team, who were willing to pitch in and put in long hours. “At 11 at night we were still laughing because everyone believed we could do things differently and everyone was excited,” he said.
The first step was to replace its existing outdated e-mail system, Novell GroupWise, with Gmail. Handling the GroupWise licenses was a huge challenge; throughout much of the year, TIFF operates with a staff of about 250, but leading up to the festival it ramps up to 600 or 700 people. Also, many employees are mobile, so they required VPN access to check their e-mail.
After researching the options, Chakravarthy chose Gmail for its scalability, outsourcing of infrastructure and add-on applications through Google Docs. The business case for Gmail was sealed with TIFF’s qualification for a significant not-for-profit discount.
The technology was the easy part. The biggest challenge, said Chakravarthy, was change management. He was dealing with artsy folks who didn’t know a lot about technology, “like my grandparents who feel when you touch it, it will blow.”
Chakravarthy was able to motivate the artistic and non-technology oriented users to adopt Gmail, said Bruce Hooey, TIFF’s CFO. He also got commitment from all stakeholders at an early stage and communicated regularly to provide information and get feedback.
As a result, TIFF was able to scale to accommodate the seasonal increase in staff during the festival (and decrease afterward), while achieving a significant cost reduction on e-mail — about 10 per cent of the IT budget — with added collaboration benefits such as Google Docs and Google Chat.
These results were even more impressive, said Hooey, considering that Chakravarthy’s team designed and implemented a greenfield network in the new building at the same time, including a Cisco network and unified communications. With only 18 hours of downtime, the internal network, applications, desktops and other IT-related functions were up and running.
The biggest change is that users can access their e-mail from anywhere, without a VPN, which has been a huge change for the organization. But the real sign of success? “Within a week groups were collaborating and creating shared documents (through Google Docs) and it’s become very integral to the organization,” said Hooey. “We didn’t have it before, but if you took it away now, there would be an uprising.”

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