Vegas casino makes winning wager on technology

Station Casinos Inc. is struggling to reorganize under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection — an undertaking that’s especially difficult because this area’s 14 per cent unemployment rate is affecting its core customer base.

But IT officials at the casino and hotel chain say that they’ve found a silver lining among the dark economic clouds — new communications technologies that they’ve been able to deploy thanks to a multimillion-dollar investment in IT over the past two years.

“There’s absolutely savings on our costs with these technologies,” said Van Baltz, a vice president and chief technology officer at Station Casinos, in an interview. Baltz wouldn’t quantify the savings that the new systems have delivered, but at one point during the interview he said the return on investment has been “wildly” better than expected.

“It’s a struggle, but we believe our technology is making us the best [casino and hotel] provider in the business,” Baltz said.

Station Casinos, which runs 18 casinos and hotels that are located off the Vegas Strip and primarily serve residents of the Las Vegas area rather than tourists, is seeing major benefits from the heavy investment in unified communications, unified computing and wireless technology, said company officials accompanying journalists on a tour of the Red Rock Casino and Resort here during the Cisco Live conference this week.

(For more on Red Rock Casino and video networking, check out this video.)

Recent network installations include a variety of Cisco Systems Inc. technologies, according to Baltz and Bryan Miles, director of networking and telecommunications. The company has deployed 3,000 of 9,000 Internet Protocol phones so far, and it is using Cisco’s new Unified Computing System (UCS) technology to consolidate data center operations. Miles said UCS allowed the company to cut the number of data center server racks from 12 to one.

The consolidation has led to reduced demand for power and cooling while simplifying the company’s Fibre Channel infrastructure and network, Miles said. Cisco launched UCS last year, but customers are just starting to install the technology. Verizon Business, for example, this week said it has started field trials of communications services that use UCS.)

Station Casinos has also consolidated 18 separate room reservation and telephone operations into a single location, freeing up space and making it possible to manage calls using Cisco’s Call Manager software.

The company has also installed a wireless IPICS, or IP Interoperability and Collaboration System, to connect the two-way radios used by maintenance and cleaning workers with the wired communications system used by most of the corporation’s 12,000 workers.

Cisco officials noted that IPICS systems are normally used by emergency personnel to communicate across various wireless bands while responding to fires or other disasters. The Station Casino IPICS implementation, Cisco officials added, is the largest non-emergency deployment of the technology anywhere.

The updates to the Station Casinos network have helped the company connect 15,000 different devices, including some of the 23,000 newer slot machines installed at its various casinos. All the networked slot machines and gaming area monitors, including surveillance cameras, operate in real time and connect to a real-time data warehouse — still a rare practice in the gaming industry, Baltz said.

The UCS and related technologies that Station Casinos has installed have made the network more adaptable and resilient, according to Baltz. “About 80 per cent of our revenue comes from slot machines — that’s why our network is so important. Downtime is not an option,” he said.

Miles said that the Station Casinos’ fiber core is redundant and runs in a ring topology that reduces downtime caused by severed optical fiber cables and other problems related to the construction work that’s often underway in Las Vegas. “Yes, we have fiber-seeking backhoes in Vegas,” he said with a smile.

The new network also supports the company’s recently installed automated touchscreen kiosks where gamblers can take their affinity cards to quickly get information on their gambling credits and other information without having to wait for an agent. “It’s one of our biggest successes,” Baltz said.

This fall, just in time for football season, Station Casinos expects to have launched a system that will allow sports bets to be made from a customer’s home computer or by phone over the company’s intranet.

Online Internet gambling is illegal under federal law, but Station Casinos’ approach, called “Sports Connection,” is legal because it uses the company’s intranet and will only serve Las Vegas area residents, Baltz explained. “We’re hopeful for a repeal of the federal Internet gambling ban, but this is our approach for now,” he said.

Cisco’s UCS made the Sports Connection application possible and opened up a potentially fertile revenue stream, Baltz said. Users will call or log onto a computer to make a request for a bet, and they will be sent a PIN code to complete the wager using stored account data. “It’s an account-based wagering system, and it’s the same as a banking transaction,” he said.

Station Casinos is also taking advantage of the flexibility of its new IP network to allow managers working on vast gambling floors to easily move games and slot machines to areas where customers are most likely to use them. Some touchscreen displays used by managers at gaming locations can now be used to send data over an encrypted Wi-Fi link.

Over the next two years, Station Casinos expects to move to the latest wagering technology, which allows a gambler to sit at any wagering station and call up the game he wants to play.

Miles and Baltz noted that many of the company’s frequent customers will continue to seek out older favorite machines. “Some of our slot machines are 12 years old, and video poker games are still popular with some,” Baltz said. “If we don’t keep those games for them, they’ll find them somewhere else.”

While Baltz said his presentation to reporters was focused on Cisco technology, which is at the core of network operations at Station Casinos, the company’s decision to use Cisco IP phones, Wi-Fi access points and the UCS came only after comparing that vendor’s products with those of other providers. “We don’t have any problem going with a variety of providers, but Cisco was the best for us,” he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld.


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