Welcoming New Yorkers Back to Live Performance in a New, Tech-Forward Park

CISCO

New York is one of the most vibrant cities in the world. It’s also home to some of the most creative endeavors around, like Little Island @Pier 55. The newest park in Manhattan, Little Island opened in May 2021, revitalizing a part of Hudson River Park with almost three acres of new public park space on the Hudson River. The park features lush greenery and a diverse array of world-class arts, educational, and community programming, food and beverage offerings, as well as a one-of-a-kind outdoor entertainment venue.


As someone who has always loved starting projects from scratch, I was intrigued by the concept of the park. I joined Little Island @Pier 55 in 2019 as Park & Facility Operations Manager. We were deep in the planning stages, and getting in on the ground meant I would get to see the project grow and change.


From operations and maintenance to administrative tasks, nothing about Little Island was as straightforward as it would be at a more traditional park or performance venue. The vision of being an outdoor entertainment space came with a lot of challenges, particularly in terms of technology.

Taking the Major Operations and Maintenance into Consideration

My department is responsible for the operation of the park, which includes maintenance, custodial duties, IT, and office operations. Coming on board early in the planning process meant that I got to work closely with the design and construction teams to help determine our best approach for long-term operations. We also had to make sure that all of our equipment and operating systems made sense for our environment. 


Photo Credit Liz Ligon


When planning operational systems for the park, two of the major challenges we faced were the evolving nature of the organization and our overall IT strategy. The organization has grown dramatically since its inception. When I started, we had fewer than a dozen people on staff. Today, we have more than 150 people. As each team and department was brought on, everyone came to the table with their own needs, and we had to figure out how to accommodate everyone.

IT flexibility is key in a performance venue to accommodate a wide variety of artists and art.


The performance spaces are a highlight of the park, and our IT plan had to make this a priority. We needed the flexibility to adapt the space to meet the requirements of a wide range of performances from a variety of artists. In addition, there are both indoor and outdoor spaces in the park, and we needed equipment and a network that could handle everything from extreme weather conditions to changing operations and maintenance requirements.


My department had worked closely with the designers and construction personnel, but we hadn’t solidified an overall IT strategy when I started. On January 19, 2021, we handed the architectural plans to Macktez, who helps creative companies manage their internal IT. We asked them to spot check the existing access points and let us know if anything was missing. 


The good news was that the locations and orientations of the wireless access points were sound. We learned quickly however, that most of the necessary infrastructure still needed to be figured out. There were no switches, no firewall, no wireless controllers. There was no network design. There was no security typology. To move forward, all of that had to be created—and fast. The design of these elements, and the choice of equipment to address all the missing pieces, fell to Macktez CTO Reilly Scull.

Planning Based on the Worst-Case Scenario

We knew what we didn’t have, but we also had a lot of unknowns in front of us. For example, we didn’t know what the theatrical system would need or what kind of security system would best cover the many different elements of the park. Because so many elements were still up in the air, Reilly set out to design everything for the worst-case scenario: What was the heaviest load on the network that we could reasonably anticipate, and then build in a factor of safety on top of that. 


For the core network, that meant we wanted to use 10 Gigabit switches and we needed a lot of capacity. We knew there would be a lot of devices in the park, and compared to major network vendors that deal with 10 Gigabit switching, Cisco is one of the industry leaders. Macktez had a lot of experience working with Cisco, and it was a no-brainer to choose their Catalyst 9000 series switches for Little Island.


Photo credit Michael Grimm


While that was an easy choice, it was harder to figure out how to handle the physical environment. In New York City, the summers can get incredibly hot and humid and the winters can be windy with sub-zero temperatures. As a floating park, Little Island’s infrastructure had to hold up to the air around Hudson River’s unique mix of fresh and saltwater. Reilly’s team knew that corrosion would be a huge factor, and it would be a harsh environment for sensitive equipment. So they set out looking for industrial-rated ethernet equipment instead.


Only a handful of manufacturers make industrial-rated ethernet equipment, and those are usually DIN rail mounted, with a much smaller form factor and much smaller port capacities. What’s more, very few have 10 Gigabit support and very little Power over Ethernet (PoE) support. But we knew we would have a wealth of cameras, a ton of access points, and a lot of throughput needs. There was only one product in the world that was going to meet our needs, and that was the Cisco Industrial Ethernet (IE) 5000

When you can make hardware decisions purely on philosophy, you get the ideal equipment for the job.


Working with Reilly and the team at Macktez, we made hardware decisions purely on philosophy. As a result, we got the ideal equipment for the job. We chose to get the most sophisticated equipment available so that we would not need to make upgrades or significant changes for a while. Flexibility was also a huge factor. We all expected that Cisco's equipment would better handle our unexpected needs as we continued to evolve, and so far, we’ve been right. 


With our robust IT infrastructure in place, we have yet to encounter a problem and the infrastructure has met the ever-changing and ever-growing demands of the staff. There wasn't any other piece of hardware on earth that we would have rather used.

An Early Experiment as New York Began to Reopen

On May 21, 2021, Little Island was one of the first places to open as pandemic restrictions began to ease. The public response has been overwhelmingly positive, and we feel amazing that we’re bringing life back to performance spaces in the city. Little Island is a space for people to gather in a way that they haven't been able to in a long time, and it feels very joyful.


Photo credit Michael Grimm


Everything in this park was meticulously considered, and when people come to the park, we all want to create a seamless and enjoyable experience for them. Even though our guests don’t directly engage with the infrastructure, almost everything they do requires that the infrastructure be in place and working correctly, whether they are ordering food, enjoying a performance, or walking around under the lights in the park. There are iPads and other mobile POS systems, all of which are connected to the IT infrastructure with a lot of digital security rules, firewall rules, and ACLs that govern everything. The end user doesn’t see any of this, of course, but that’s the beauty in it. To them, it’s magic.

The end user doesn’t see the IT infrastructure at work, but that’s the beauty in it. To them, it’s magic.


We’ve had a wide range of requests from the performers, and the Cisco equipment has been flexible enough to effortlessly deliver what everyone needs. Hardware can be provisioned remotely within a matter of minutes, instead of having to wait for staff to make changes onsite.  


Little Island constantly thinks about new and interesting ways to engage visitors, use the space, and make changes based on what people want from their experience at the park. In the future, we plan to improve a number of operational tasks, which will require building on the current infrastructure. 


Given the growing popularity of augmented reality, we imagine that it could play a significant role in the future of storytelling, too. Little Island is a unique environment with no RF interference, a top-notch WiFi network with a 40 Gigabit backbone that can probably handle 20 Gigabit of WAN throughput. All of this provides a lot of potential for the venue to host installation pieces that haven’t yet been created. 


Photo courtesy of Little Island

Infrastructure That Turns “No” into “Yes”

Often in operations, I have to say "no" a lot more than I like, telling people that their requests aren’t viable, and that we have to rethink their process or come up with another solution. But the current IT infrastructure lets me say yes to a wide range of staff requests. If it’s possible, we can make it happen, and that’s enabled us to create a great experience for visitors who are desperately craving live, in-person moments. 


In partnership with Macktez and Cisco, we’re all proud and grateful to have built this project and respond to the changes as it evolves. It’s an incredible space for New Yorkers, and with the resilient, reliable infrastructure underlying everything, the park is just as great under the hood.