Long-Term Technology Strategies and the Bottom Line, Part 2: Is Your Network Ready for Friday Night?

It is 4:30 p.m. on a Friday; the marketing team has planned this event for three months. The buses have already pulled into the parking lot. Many of the people on those buses have previously visited your strongest competitor 35 miles away. The slot tournament begins at 6 p.m., and customers are filing in and finding machines for the evening. What will their experience be like in comparison to your competitor? Fast, innovative and exciting, or slow, conventional and quiet?

Have you thought about your network’s direct impact on player experience? Consider this hypothetical: An optimized network allows a slot information system to operate faster at your casino versus a competitor’s casino. Not only does the players’ experience improve because of this, but so does their amount of play. Maybe the speed increase allows you to push more information—marketing, news, entertainment, streaming video, etc.—faster to players. With proper networking, you will have the ability to stream an Orioles game and the Maryland local news directly to a slot machine. It may not seem like much, but for a player from Maryland, while they are visiting your casino in Mississippi, a little piece of home could have a lot of impact. Especially when this player-specific information stream could be achieved automatically, based on data collected in the slot information system. The player experience may be dramatically improved using your network.

The Network
First, step back and think about what a network is at a basic level: a tool for communication. That is it in a nutshell. Two soup cans and a string? A network, albeit an incredibly simple one. The reason that networking has evolved into the huge information technology industry segment it is today, is because better communication always leads to a better ability to achieve goals. Any time organizations can communicate information faster and more clearly, it creates an advantage. For example, it is commonly accepted that the Union won the Civil War because it had the superior technology. Better guns were part of this, and so was superior railroad equipment, but a key technology also commonly attributed to the victory was the telegraph.

The side with better information communication won. In essence, the pen was—and is—mightier than the sword.

Network Infrastructure
Most organizations rely on their internal network infrastructure for internal and external voice, data and wireless communication, and also to secure that information as it is being communicated. Network infrastructures are built similar to a mail system. A high amount of information comes into an organization’s data center, either captured internally or from external sources (e.g., the Internet). This information is redirected and distributed via routing and switching to the correct endpoints for individuals throughout the organization to retrieve—and respond to. The process allows for the correct information to be directed to only the people who are supposed to see it. An optimized network infrastructure design will allow for information collection and distribution to be fast, efficient and secure. However, the opposite often occurs.
When reviewing their network, casinos need to consider the following questions:

1. Do we have a long-term strategy for our network?
2. Are we investing in a network that will scale with our needs, or are we simply filling a one-time need?
3. Are there multiple networks transferring data that could be consolidated onto one?
4. Who has access to what information in this network? Who should have access?
5. How is information shared externally (with customers/vendors) from our network?

There is much to be gained by brainstorming the information that is available in an organization and assigning value to it. For instance, how valuable is voice information? How valuable is the quality, and how valuable is the reliability of communication? Think of available end points for information collection and/or distribution that exist in an organization—phones, computers, slot machines, point-of-sale machines, security cameras, televisions, signs, cell/smartphones, iPads, card readers, vending machines, and the list goes on. The takeaway from this is that properties need to think beyond what is available today and consider how the casino property may look three, five or 10 years from now as technology drives forward with innovations each and every day.

Consolidating Infrastructure
Another area of opportunity to greatly reduce operating costs for casinos has been by consolidating network infrastructure. Similar to the philosophy of server virtualization, business has recognized that the true cost in IT comes from the time spent in ongoing management and maintenance of multiple products and systems. In most casinos, two separate networks are being supported. One of them is the analog voice network initially created to support the phone system. The other is an Internet Protocol (IP) data network that supports the computer network. The data network consists of both serial and Ethernet connectivity.

About 10 years ago, the movement to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) became very popular, and many organizations began to acquire new phone systems that worked on a shared computer network without taking up very much additional bandwidth. The value of doing this is most easily realized in savings from eliminating the support and management overhead costs of two separate networks in the same casino.

Another major benefit of using VoIP is the ability to combine voice system information and the computer network. Sometimes this ability is referred to as presence. For instance, an individual who is using tools to unify communications, such as e-mail and voice systems, could integrate their work calendar to the phone system and their smartphone. If that person is in a meeting, their phone may automatically go to zero-ring auto answer with a unique message for that type of instance. Other employees could also see that the person is in a meeting and go to another resource immediately instead of waiting for the information they need.

The overwhelming general consensus is that consolidating networks with VoIP is an obvious area of opportunity for dollar savings and improved communications. Some may question why they have not done this before. Often organizations will attempt to save dollars and “bolt-on” new tools for networks instead of having an overall, long-term vision of what they want to achieve. Organizations have a great opportunity to begin looking at solutions from the perspective of how their technology investment today will impact their overall technology strategy and future needs.

Ethernet vs. Serial Network
A network upgrade that casinos perform regularly is the conversion of slot floors from serial networked gaming to high-speed Ethernet. A major value add for this upgrade is the ability to direct communication to groups of players or individual players via the slot information system’s readout device in a slot machine. Slot information system Ethernet-capable devices offer attractive LCD screens that sit within each slot machine. With an Ethernet network, casinos are able to transmit vastly greater amounts of information to players. This can include marketing campaigns directed to groups and individuals that are even capable of live video. Consider the ability to have a player watch their favorite baseball team play a game from their slot machine—could this lead to more play time? Many casinos have ignored these opportunities, considering them just expensive upgrades. However, Ethernet-capable devices are something that players tend to be very attracted to. The marketing value becomes incredibly apparent in a competitive scenario. Often casinos look to a design for an Ethernet solution because a neighboring casino upgraded to one and the impact of players moving to the upgraded casino was felt immediately.

The bottom-line impact may be projected by increasing player satisfaction, but more easily, we can determine real cost savings by reducing the amount of management necessary to support serial solutions. It is difficult for slot information system companies to retain talented employees and maintain a high level skill set on older serial technology, while learning new skills to maintain and support Ethernet systems. These are the employees that casinos rely on for support to avoid, or get back from, downtime issues. The reduced supply leads to higher ongoing maintenance costs to the casino. This is one of the main reasons that casino management will see a significant push to move to Ethernet systems over the next few years.

What Can You Do?
A great way to understand the current state of your network is to have an accredited service provider do a network assessment. Remember, many service providers do not work with organizations whose busiest times are outside of Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Network assessments often involve tools that sit on your network and gauge network traffic. This allows a provider to understand current network traffic patterns and design solutions to support those patterns. These designs need to account for the busiest network traffic times. However, if the provider assessing a network looks at traffic on Tuesday at 10 a.m. in a casino, most likely the design will be flawed. Casinos are a unique business in that a majority of your relevant business data is created, and network traffic, will occur on the weekend. Be sure that your service providers understand your needs. That way you can be confident that your network is ready for Friday night.

The Bottom Line
While there is a necessary investment to improve network infrastructure and allow for additional services, it is an area that offers high return on investment opportunities. Different technology systems within the casino have begun the push toward necessary network upgrades simply for continued service. This creates a situation where, to remain business relevant, gaming entities will need to upgrade network infrastructure to a supported level. The opportunity in this situation is to be proactive, creating a strategy for current and long-term, overall goals. The alternative is to be reactive and determine this need exists when forced with the alternative of upgrading the network to x level or go without a particular system’s support.

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