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The Ford Museum Puts Windows Azure Pack on Display

As Microsoft looks to bring its public cloud into to the datacenters of customers and other hosting providers with the forthcoming release of Azure Stack, its predecessor is still a viable solution for some organizations. The IT decision makers at The Henry Ford, a nonprofit museum complex situated on a 250-acre campus with a broad collection of historical items spanning 300 years, last year decided to use the Windows Azure Pack (WAP) to drive a new private cloud as part of an effort to modernize and digitize a massive collection of objects to make them more accessible to visitors -- both at its Dearborn, Mich. facility in kiosks and online.

Not to be confused with Azure Stack, which will run the identical public cloud platform in a converged bare-metal system when it arrives in the middle of next year, WAP is a hybrid cloud solution introduced four years ago. Unlike Azure Stack, WAP brings the Azure portal interface to System Center 2012/R2 running with Windows Server 2012/R2. Microsoft introduced WAP as an option to Windows Server 2012 with fanfare, billing it as the Cloud OS. Most customers and hosting providers waited a year until the R2 release, which brought a more suitable version of Hyper-V, experts said at the time.

The extent to which WAP is used isn't clear, though more affordable implementations have only recently become available. Dell and Hewlett Packard Enterprise last year rolled out scaled down versions of their Cloud Platform Systems, coengineered with Microsoft. Redmond magazine recently examined HPE's iteration of the WAP-based system.

Organizations that don't want to spend a few hundred thousand dollars on a CPS can also go to a subscription model via third-party cloud and hosting providers. Among those who have launched new WAP-based services last year are Rackspace and Hostway, both of which were among the first to join Microsoft's Cloud OS Network, which now includes more than 100 companies around the world. The Henry Ford considered both providers but ultimately chose Hostway. Matthew Majeski, director of the The Henry Ford,in a recent interview described the effort as a major initiative.

"This was a massive undertaking," Majeski said. For one thing, the museum and its various constituencies were decentralized with 40 Web sites and microsites hosting about 70,000 pages, all with different content management systems, most of which were custom built more than a decade ago. "It was a challenge not from a maintenance standpoint but from the standpoint of driving a consistent experience," Majeski said. "You could go from site to site with different navigation and color patterns fonts. It was difficult for the consumer to navigate."

The IT management issues notwithstanding, the larger priority was the business initiative to provide a better experience for visitors. To achieve that, museum officials decided years ago it wanted to digitize its mammoth collection of objects. To date it has scanned and made available 56 million artifacts consisting of 10TB of data, ranging from cars, parts, signs and other historical vestiges of the century-old automaker. Ford, a longtime Microsoft shop, wanted the new private cloud to be a Microsoft-based solution given its existing systems are primarily Windows Server and SQL Server based.

At the same time, The Henry Ford museum wanted a dedicated privately hosted cloud that was managed rather than running it purely in Microsoft Azure. "It was really all about stabilization," Majeski said. "We needed a complete solution from a hosting perspective, based on the blueprint for where we wanted to go."

The museum also now has Sitefinity 1.1 CMS, which allows it to generate ASP.NET-based pages and an ongoing digitization process of objects and content aimed at building stories around them, powered by a search engine from Elastic Search. Majeski has brought in a team of nine people consisting of designers, curators and people to build metadata around the content.

The project has also centered around taking data out of EMu, a popular provider of museum collections management software, pulling it into the SQL Server databases and using newly built APIs to pull the appropriate data based on the front-end query from a user, Majeski explained. Perficient, the digital agency brought in to push the initiative forward, built the APIs.

Pete Ferraro, the Perficient project manager and architect, said it was the first WAP-based private cloud project he has worked on, though he's worked with the Microsoft Azure public cloud in the past. Leading up to its Feb. 29 launch, Ferraro said there were some performance issues, which he likened to the team coming up to speed on the platform. "A lot of it had to do with some idiosyncrasies connecting the instances themselves, like spinning up multiple instances," Ferraro said.

The Ford project was one of the first large Hostway customers using the WAP solution, which was also a factor. Hostway had a specific team focused on troubleshooting WAP issues, he added. Tony Savoy, senior vice president and general manager for managed hosting and cloud services at Hostway, acknowledged it was one of its earlier projects offered under what it calls its Virtual Private Cloud service.

"The Ford Museum was a fan of Azure but they knew they wanted to take advantage of a private cloud.," Savoy said. "Given we had launched the solution around Windows Azure Pack, it was a perfect fit for what they're looking for. They were looking for performance; they were looking for scalability but they were looking for it in an isolated environment where they didn't have to share infrastructure with other customers."

It's possible some workloads will go to the Microsoft Azure public cloud, which Hostway offers managed services for as well, Savoy noted. Disaster recovery using Azure Site Recovery is one option, he said. Majeski said The Ford Museum isn't ruling out splitting workloads that might not require the isolated dedicated network of WAP onto Azure.

WAP has taken several years to find a niche and even now it's not clear how many customers are using it. Savoy said since Hostway launched its service over a year ago, it has more than 30 customers using it. Some are larger than the Ford Museum, though he says it's the most prominent case study the company has shared to date.

While this case study is an example of a successful virtual private cloud based on WAP, it begs the question, would the Ford Museum be better off with Azure Stack, once it arrives next summer? Perhaps so, though it would have set the project back by 12 to 18 months at least, and most likely longer.

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 09/21/2016 at 9:21 AM


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