Seeing is believing: Page 2

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Let There Be Piece(s)

Larry Bouthillier, head of multimedia services at HBS, notes that before Clark took over the school's vision for IT was, at best, a bit blurry. "I like to say that we exhibited a great commitment to standards--we had them all," he says dryly. Islands of technology and decentralized management of IT led to a proliferation of systems: seven e-mail programs, 77 different desktop configurations, and more applications and operating systems than any one IT department could support successfully.

Clark's mandate to IT--deliver an ambitious end product via smaller, more manageable pieces--was met with success. Six-week delivery cycles replaced six-month ones, and new apps were prototyped, tested, refined, and delivered in a way that demonstrated their value immediately.

"When an intranet reaches critical mass, users start driving innovation in ways no central organization would have thought of. You give them the tools and the rest just snowballs."
--Larry Bouthillier, head of multimedia services at Harvard Business School

As a result, HBS has had a version of streaming video since the early days of its intranet in 1996. But only with the advent of several key pieces of technology--low-bandwidth video servers and a system for logging and indexing video clips among them--has it become so ubiquitous and robust. In the first iteration of the project, dubbed Videotools, four Sun Microsystems Inc. 1000E quad-processor boxes were equipped with video server software from Starlight Networks Inc., based in Mountain View, Calif. "The application ran a simple flat-file database accessed via Perl CGI to deliver a very simple video-link search capability," Bouthillier says. "You could search the system and get a link to play a video, but that link was essentially hard-coded to point to a specific video server."

The system worked, but it was limited in several ways: It was only accessible on campus; it had rudimentary search capabilities; and the hard-coded links meant that there was no way to work around broken links or downed servers.

In keeping with Clark's directive to break large projects into smaller, more manageable pieces, Videotools was improved gradually. The advent of low-bandwidth video tools such as those from RealNetworks Inc. of Seattle, allowed students to access the system even if they live off campus. That took care of the first limitation. An off-the-shelf product that facilitates the searching of video addressed the second. Made by Virage Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., the Virage VideoLogger uses speech-to-text technology to create a searchable transcription of the voices on a video, along with scene-sensitive frame capturing technology that allows searching of particular video clips. The VideoLogger, says Bouthillier, has vastly improved the ability of students to find specific or related pieces of video in the archive.

The final obstacle--managing the operation of the video servers themselves--was eliminated at the end of 1998. A six-month development project in Bouthillier's department resulted in a groundbreaking Video Delivery Management Application. The application, written in Java and accessing an Oracle Corp. database, incorporates load balancing among the servers, keeps track of each server's video inventory, runs watchdog on the servers, and tracks more complete data about each video than ever, such as the information generated by the Virage VideoLogger.

Today the system runs on eight Sun E450s and E250s. Five of those machines serve up MPEG video; the other three are dedicated to low-bandwidth video. The system is sophisticated enough now to look up a user's IP address and direct the request to either an MPEG server for on-campus, high-bandwidth connections, or a RealVideo server for dial-up, low-bandwidth connections, and to determine the best network path for playback.

The online video library consists not only of case study materials but recorded clips of campus events such as executive roundtables and VIP speakers. According to Bouthillier, there is about 400GB of video content today, with over 1,500 unique pieces of video available online. "We're producing new content all the time," he notes, "so there's an endless source of new stuff to put online."

The interface to the system is written in HTML, says Bouthillier. The application is only available to users with a valid HBS login, and different parts of it are available to students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

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