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Digital asset management supports a world of rich media

This article appears in the issue October 2011, [Vol 20 Issue 9]
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Digital asset management (DAM) systems are serving a large and rapidly growing market, but also a complex and fragmented one. The market encompasses media-focused organizations such as stock photo companies, creative agencies, marketing departments of large and small companies, and institutions such as museums. The rich-media elements of websites are also often sourced from DAM systems. Providers of DAM software are equally diverse, ranging from enterprise content management (ECM) suites that include DAM as a component, to pure-play and niche solutions.

Managing the metadata

One thing that can be said for certain is that the number of digital assets, particularly rich media, is growing dramatically as information presentation becomes increasingly visual. The cost of storage has declined, which is a benefit on the surface but also a drawback because users are more inclined to retain everything, making the task of locating the desired content more difficult. The number of assets plus the drive for greater efficiency in an economic environment of tightened budgets all add up to foster the market for DAM systems, which has been thriving despite the economic slowdown.

The Portland Art Museum in Oregon received a state grant to develop better access to cultural heritage and the arts, and invested in a digital asset management system from Extensis, Extensis Portfolio Server 9.5. "We did a lot of research and found that Portfolio Server 9.5 would manage our assets effectively and was an intuitive product with a short learning curve," says Emma Wolman, digital asset manager at the museum.

One of the primary goals was to allow users within the museum to share digital assets more effectively. "The marketing department might need to use the same file as the education department," Wolman says, "and we wanted to be sure they each had access." Previously, files were stored in folders and organized by accession number. Users had to either know the number or scroll through files to locate the desired asset. "Now our search and retrieval process is incredibly fast," Wolman adds. "We can search any field, artist, date, title or part of a title, and come up with the image right away."

Storing each image only once has reduced the amount of storage that is required, and also ensures that the image is always credited correctly. "As we went along, we instituted best practices, documenting what we are doing in each case," Wolman explains.  Such best practices include creating, maintaining and presenting robust descriptive, structural and technical metadata to accompany the digital assets.

Files are stored in folders on a central drive, and Portfolio Server manages the metadata associated with each file. "As new images are added to the folders, they are automatically cataloged," Wolman says. "We do not have to enter data manually." Batch processing to create derivatives such as thumbnails is also possible, which was not an option before Portfolio Server.

Prior to importing images into Portfolio Server, Wolman spent considerable time working with metadata. "We configured the metadata, mapping it to assist in importing record information from other systems," Wolman explains, "and created custom fields to accommodate and represent the data in accordance with industry standards."

The trend: mobility

All the digital images in the Portland Art Museum's collection have now been migrated to Portfolio Server 9.5, and new images are brought into the system as they are obtained. Now that the system is in place, Wolman has been helping staff throughout the museum learn how to use it effectively. "We identify who the primary users are in each department," she says, "and train them first." Even though the new system helps users work more efficiently, a certain amount of change management is still necessary. "We train people most likely to benefit from the system, and they catch on quickly," she says.

In the newly released Portfolio Server 10, cataloging and file processing speed has been increased and new functionality has been added. "Using [Extensis] NetMediaMAX, more than one server can be utilized to form a media engine cluster," says Edward Smith, product marketing manager for DAM solutions at Extensis. Support for video has been improved so that video files can be played from within Portfolio Server, and videos can be converted from one format to another. Portfolio Server 10 provides HTML 5 support so browsers that use the newer technology can play back videos.

"The biggest emerging trend we see is in mobility," says Smith. "A large percent of businesses are planning on deploying iPads or other tablets, and users want to see files not just in their offices but at client meetings or other remote locations." A significant portion of the development work for Portfolio Server 10 was focused on enabling delivery on mobile platforms and managing video content.

Extensis products compete on ease of use and cost. "It only takes a few hours to get Portfolio Server up and running," Smith maintains. "Our software is priced under $2,000 for three concurrent users, a minimal investment for organizations taking the first steps with DAM." The digital asset management industry still has a lot of room for growth, according to Smith. "Many organizations, especially small to medium-sized ones, are not yet aware of the value a DAM system can bring, in terms of savings in time and improved productivity," he says. "With the volume of digital files companies are continuously creating, the key benefit users of a DAM system realize immediately is the ability to quickly find the right file."

From customer to vendor

VRX Studios was founded in 2000 as a provider of destination-related virtual tours to the travel industry. The quality of VRX's virtual tours caught the eye of those in the hospitality industry, and over the past 12 years the firm has evolved into a full-service global photography company serving more than 10,000 hotels around the world, as well as the architectural, lifestyle and food and beverage industries. The images that VRX Studios has created for its customers over the years were stored on a homegrown system up until 2010. In 2009, the system began to experience growing pains, and as a result, VRX Studios opted to seek a new solution. At the time, the company had 8,000 customers and was managing 20 TBs of media assets.

The large and growing volume of assets VRX Studios was managing sparked an interest in the cloud as a possible solution. "We needed a system that was massively scalable, highly flexible and could be quickly and easily accessed from every corner of the world," says David MacLaren, founder and CEO of VRX Studios. "That's where the Windows Azure Cloud platform from Microsoft came in."

VRX Studios decided to build its own digital asset management system, entirely on the cloud, both to ensure that the application met its specifications, and to mitigate the cost and time to get to market. "We decided on Azure because there's a large base of highly skilled .NET programmers available around the world that we could pull from, and Microsoft provided the corporate support, programs and partner ecosystem that we felt we needed to be successful," explains MacLaren. "Building our own system on Azure provided more opportunities and flexibility than buying an existing commercial system, and it ensured our immediate needs were met."

In addition to the Azure platform, Microsoft provided the global IT infrastructure that VRX Studios needed to address the demands of its global clientele. "We built the application, brought it to market and were managing assets entirely in the cloud in under a year," MacLaren says. The choice to move to the cloud cut down on development costs substantially. "We would have had to spend twice as much to bring MediaValet to market without Azure," MacLaren says. "It was a simple decision, Azure enabled us to focus all of our resources on building the best digital asset management system we could, and left the IT infrastructure entirely up to Microsoft."

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