Georgia Aquarium's diverse IT infrastructure makes a splash

World's largest aquarium taps array of platforms to meet needs of employees, guests, and sea critters alike

The Georgia Aquarium doesn't just house a remarkably diverse population boasting 500 species of sea critters; the facility's IT infrastructure comprises an admirable array of heterogeneous, integrated platforms to ensure that guests, employees, and fish alike have their every need met.

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Beach Clark, the organization's VP of IT, and his team of five started work on the ambitious installation for the world's largest aquarium in 2005. Given the modest size of his staff, Clark recruited services from a school of partners, including, Accenture, Microsoft, and Unisys -- as well as volunteers.

"Trying to create an appropriate mix of in-house staff and third-party relationships is the most difficult challenge for IT as an organization," Clark says. "We rely heavily on third parties to provide deep expertise where we have gaps in-house. We are also fortunate to have about 25 volunteers who help us in areas as diverse as PC setup, application development, and network infrastructure planning and design."

Despite the challenges of having so many entities working simultaneously to develop and integrate this whale of a system, the project was completed this year.

"On the technical side, creating an integrated set of applications was the greatest challenge, since we primarily use packaged software," Clark says. "We had to create a seamless integration between our e-commerce package from Able Commerce, our ticketing system from Gateway, our fundraising system from Blackbaud, our event management system from Efficient Frontiers, and our Microsoft Dynamics accounting and purchasing system."

The result is an integrated infrastructure that runs on four Unisys ES7000 servers and that, fittingly, is built to scale well. It supports all of the aquarium's business and exhibit functions, including: ticketing and real-time crowd control for as many as 3,800 guests at a time; apps for tracking the feeding schedules of the aquarium's 100,000 aquatic denizens; an animal inventory database that covers the care of the underwater menagerie; and a water-filtration system that enables the aquarium to create 8 million gallons of salt water from Atlanta tap water. On top of that, there's e-mail, payroll apps, content management, and more.

While working on the project, Clark and team faced a sea of obstacles that don't crop up in most other industries. For example, they found that the air-conditioning vents in one of the preliminary holding warehouses was ushering saltwater from the nearby tanks into the datacenter. Working with their IT partners, Clark and his team were able to prevent equipment damage.

The Georgia Aquarium's IT systems are humming along swimmingly, and the benefits have been evident. The facility's day-to-day business operations are running smoothly, even with some 3.5 million guests in first 18 months -- 50 percent more than anticipated thanks to online ticketing.

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