A pocket protector, a bow tie, and a receding hairline, coupled with an infinite knowledge of arcane acrostics are considered the essential ingredients for computer success. Despite the "geek" stereotype promoted by the media, Information Technology (IT) resources can be used by anyone with a reasonable understanding of logic and a willingness to apply new methods to old problems.
Information Technology, originally known as computer science and later Information Systems (IS), is focused on converting, processing, storing, transmitting, and receiving data and information through computer and communication systems. In worship facilities, IT is typically tasked with accounting, payroll, and contribution tracking duties as well as ensuring communication via email, phone, and Internet. For individual ministers, IT supplies the components necessary for song writing, set list compilation, sermon outlines, and equipment control. At its core, IT is a problem-solving enterprise designed to reduce the load and complexity of human work. However, most church IT departments evolve without an overarching approach, growing instead in a haphazard manner as immediate needs are met without concern for the long-term impact. Planning an IT system's infrastructure, purpose, and application before the equipment is purchased and installed is the key to IT's successful reduction of work-load and improvement in productivity.
An Information Technology system is comprised of hardware, software, and interconnects. The hardware includes servers, routers, switches, terminals, drives, and personal computers. Software for controlling the system is distinct from the more common application program software running on a local PC. Interconnects are the lifeline of the system, providing transport of information among the components. Taken together, the hardware, software, and interconnects form the network with a systems engineer at the helm who is responsible for maintaining and updating the network. In the worship environment, the systems engineer may hold other positions if the IT demands are small, yet it is not uncommon to fund the systems engineer as a full-time position. In the ever-changing world of technology, an engineer with the expertise to discern between a Rube Goldberg machine and a true best-practices device is the church's most valuable IT asset.
IT in New Construction and Retrofits
As in all disciplines, the IT need drives the requirement. In new construction, the process is physically simplified since the devices can be located and connected where they perform best and cable routing is relatively easy. However, as the ultimate need may be partially unknown in a new facility, the designer must have foresight to unearth latent uses the staff may not recognize beforehand. If the designer is willing to track the staff's workday, he or she will discover how and where the new IT system can relieve bottlenecks the employees have come to take for granted. For an existing worship facility, the greatest IT need is assimilation of various systems into a functional whole. Often, each department has developed unique solutions unfit for integration into a campus-wide design. In this environment, improvement starts with an evaluation of the current structure and related components and how different areas have taken tangents away from a central solution. Once a determination is made as to how the current system fails to meet the overall need, a system can be built to encompass the strategic vision without sacrificing the tactical requirements of each department.
IT planning revolves around scale; that is, determining how large the infrastructure needs to be to meet immediate and future requirements without over-building the network to an unreasonable level. For most systems, the Internet Protocol Suite (IPS) four layer reference model is the basis for applying a combination of Personal Area Networks (PAN), Local Area Networks (LAN), and Wide Area Networks (WAN). Since most connections are based on the frame-based (data packet) Ethernet wiring and signaling standard, the structure, regardless of detail differences, is standardized. Known officially as IEEE 802.3 (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), Ethernet uses simple twisted pair wiring, called CAT5 or the newer CAT6 (Category or structured) for connecting end systems to the network and higher cost fiber optics for the system backbone, providing a secure, reliable hard-wired connection between components.
A typical Ethernet installation includes a hub or central point, one or more switches to guide the signals, a bridge to carry the signals across sections, and routers to carry the signals down different paths. For new construction, Ethernet cabling can be run through conduit or plenum and delivers the network where it is needed in a cost-saving manner.
In a retrofit environment, running new cabling can be expensive if the route must penetrate firewalls or older sections of the building. Recent improvements in wireless components have made it possible for a portion of the network to remain free of wiring constraints. Wi-Fi is the current model for radio frequency (RF) wireless delivery of information.
The Necessary Hardware
On the hardware side of IT, building blocks of devices, termed nodes, combine to form the system. A Network Interface Card (NIC) provides individual computers access to the network while the aforementioned hubs, switches, and routers create a shared interface for other connected components. Once the network grows beyond a simple point-to-point level, a rack-mounted server and associated devices become the norm.
Proper IT planning must include physical space for this type of dedicated hardware, preferably in an isolated, yet centrally located room with sufficient cooling for these heat-generating components and access to the rear of the rack for ease of maintenance. AC power is a significant concern as well, since the incoming supply can fluctuate beyond the strict requirements of the IT units. An Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) is, in essence, a battery back-up system for the components and along with a functional power conditioner with sufficient filtering capacity provides clean energy for the network. IT software choice is determined by the system specifics and boasts a host of dedicated service providers.
Into the Worship Arena
IT applications can now move beyond the front office and into the worship and members arena. For instance, 360Connected Church is an online collaborative community designed as a relationship-based solution for churches looking to connect with their members in a secure environment. Unlike an open platform such as MySpace, it is controlled and owned by the church. The format is simple, well designed, and allows interaction among members through blogs, profiles, and photos. As part of the ministry's IT system, 360Connected Church grants leaders management over websites focused on differing group needs. From the youth ministry to senior adults, each section can have unique content, yet connect to the greater church body.
For ministries with an existing church management software package, 360Connected Church provides a seamless integration tool. For instance, Fellowship One is a popular database capable of managing information about people, but without a way for church members to use the information to interact. 360Connected Church integrates into Fellowship One, leaving it intact while broadening its scope to function as a digital gathering place in a single-source environment. With such combinations, the promised benefits of IT as a cost-effective tool for communication become real.
IT systems form a backbone for remote control of devices through individual IP (Internet Protocol) addresses. For a church with a widely spaced campus, the IT system can eliminate the need to physically start and control video projection and media systems. For example, Barco, a leading manufacturer of video projectors and large-scale displays, offers its SLM series, complete with remote monitoring capabilities on-board. The projector is tied to the network and its associated software allows the church tech director to check lamp life, switch the input, and troubleshoot the projector from his or her desk. By proactively managing the video devices, the tech director can reduce downtime and the need to overnight replacement parts. Further, Barco's unified common interface provides the same menu structure on the fellowship hall projector as on the primary sanctuary projector. The company's ICON series includes an internal computer and video card for multi-source content streamed from a centrally located media server, eliminating the frustration of connecting and operating a local DVD player or laptop. Since the projector becomes just another network device, it falls to the knowledgeable tech team to control, freeing the Sunday school teachers to focus on the subject, not the technology.
IT is destined to serve as the central nervous system of the connected church. An IT network is built from hardware, software, and cabling to create a functional way to send and receive large amounts of data. Through planning, the system can be retrofitted to an existing structure and networked with a combination of wired and wireless infrastructure. New facilities should include a dedicated space for the IT core modules with proper cooling and power conditioning. IT networks are capable of expanding the church's reach to include an active online community for its members and interested outsiders, as well as a means to control media displays from a central location. Information Technology is a capable and willing servant.