Emily Carr Institute discovers technology and art make good fit

It might come as a surprise to hear that the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver has installed a high-tech network to connect students, faculty and administration; after all, art speaks to the quest for truth and beauty, not bits and bytes, doesn’t it?

The answer depends on the institute itself, said Chris Brougham, the school’s manager of IT.

“If the school was a traditional art school with only painting and sculpture, there wouldn’t be a great need for an advanced network,” he said. “But it’s more than that, and artists today are more than just painters and sculptors. Those folks, along with those involved with digital media manipulation, like animators and graphic designers, are all interested in technology.”

In fact, Emily Carr’s new network – switches, routers and digital phones from Alcatel – should come as no surprise at all. The institute is known as well for its digital media mettle as for its roots in Canadian art and culture. Some pupils study traditional means of form and texture, while others study 3D animation and graphic design, relying heavily on computers and the network.

But the school’s old-fashioned infrastructure was insufficient for these nouveau artistes. When Brougham arrived in 1998, Emily Carr had just one server, one which was often clogged. Not to mention disk space, which Brougham figures amounted to 20GB for the entire school.

The PBX phone system was “starting to show its age” with unwarranted busy signals, he said. And the Octel voicemail system was “flaky.…People were missing calls. If they tried to retrieve a message, it wasn’t there. And it wasn’t Y2K-compliant.”

“What I try to do here is put in place a system that makes it easy for people to use technology, so it’s not daunting,” Brougham said. “The infrastructure was so poor, people were afraid of it.”

So the school embarked on a high-tech revamp, starting with that ancient voicemail system and an equally non-Y2K-compliant router. Initially, Brougham went to Xylan Corp., a data gear manufacturer, for the institute’s network needs.

“[Brougham] was actually in the process of upgrading or replacing his existing Nortel infrastructure,” recalled Reno Moccia from Calgary, who was the Xylan account manager for Emily Carr. “We put together a couple of proposals and met a couple of times and won that business.”

In 1999 Alcatel acquired Xylan and, in turn, took on the Emily Carr account. These days, Moccia is Alcatel’s sales manager for Western Canada.

Over the past two years the school replaced most of its ageing infrastructure, adding two Alcatel OmniStack 5024 (layer 3) packet switches and a number of 4024 (layer 2) switches. Emily Carr recently tossed the old PBX in favour of Alcatel’s OmniPCX 4400 PBX, which was designed with Ethernet in mind.

“[Alcatel]…made Ethernet a native function of the PBX,” Moccia said, adding that the system is ready for voice over IP (VoIP). “They actually did that four years ago when they designed the box. It wasn’t at that time for voice over IP or IP telephony, although that was definitely the roadmap. It was so your PBX could sit on your network just like your e-mail server, and you would be able…to manage it over an SNMP (simple network management protocol).”

Brougham said he was searching for just the thing. Emily Carr is adding satellite campuses and, come next September, it might need to connect its various properties with VoIP.

The charm of Alcatel’s PBX is its ability to handle VoIP, Brougham said. “This was very interesting to us. The other switches we looked at were either very vague on their abilities to do this, or they offered vapourware. ‘It’s coming in the first quarter, 2001,’ sort of thing.”

Norm Bogen, director of WAN infrastructure and services with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based research firm Cahners In-Stat, said VoIP’s detractors think the technology isn’t ready for prime time. The naysayers claim, according to Bogen, that since VoIP uses Internet protocols to send and receive information, quality of service (QoS) remains an issue. IP was designed to handle data, not voice, and voice is particularly sensitive to delays and other QoS issues.

But the analyst said VoIP is mature and growing popular in certain situations – instances where companies want to connect satellite offices with voice and data, for example.

In time, incumbent telephone companies will turn to VoIP for advanced communication services, like instant video conferencing and unified messaging, he said.

With many companies wary of an uncertain economy, “[telcos are] cutting back and saying, ‘We’re going to buy equipment only if it [offers] new revenue or reduced costs.’ The good news about IP is it can do both. Voice over IP networks can reduce the cost of delivering long-distance and [offer] other applications.”

Brougham said advanced networking technology speaks to artists as well as big telcos. “Since I started here, we’ve had a big increase in the number of artists wanting to use technology. We just put in a brand new computer lab for sculptors, painters and print makers to try their ideas in a digital form before they commit them to a material form.”

And the case for this new network at Emily Carr extends beyond the school, he said. Consider the administrative staff members, who rely on the institute’s infrastructure for secure transactions.

“It’s exactly the same kind of work you’d find in a bank. You’re dealing with money and confidential data, and people are seriously concerned about their marks not being leaked out. You need that kind of responsibility and professionalism.”