IT investment proves a help to struggling Station Casinos

Unified computing and communications help Las Vegas gaming company implement innovative wagering systems

LAS VEGAS -- Station Casinos Inc. is struggling to reorganize under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection -- an undertaking that's especially difficult because this area's 14% 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% 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.

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