The surprising secret of a Las Vegas data center: No glitz

But the ordinary looking data center must do some extraordinary work to keep the casino going

LAS VEGAS -- During a first visit to the data center of a Las Vegas casino, one might expect to see an Ocean's Eleven-type environment -- corridors lit up with glowing, mysterious lights and hushed, gleaming spaces stuffed with sophisticated sensors detecting an increasing pulse rate.

Without question, there must be a pressurized dual door system with ultra high-tech vapor locks and man traps watched over by guys wearing sun glasses and displaying a hint of menace.

But in the case of the Sands Corp., visitors get the unexpected perspective of Steve Vollmer, CTO and VP of IT, an affable, engaging guy who is quick to dash down images of movie-inspired Vegas glitz in his IT operation.

It's just "another data center," Vollmer said as we stepped through a relatively ordinary metal door of the data center running The Venetian resort and casino owned by Sands. The data center is one of two housed at the Sands complex.

The Venetian operation, probably indistinguishable from any data center at a similar size company, can act either as a primary or secondary facility in the event of a failover. There are rows of servers on a raised floor and one hears the vacuum cleaner-type noise created by air handling systems that is pervasive in any data center.

This Venetian IT facility may follow a standard issue corporate model, but what's done here isn't ordinary.

Part of the business is, of course, gambling. Thus the questions about how the data center interacts with slot machines during a press tour organized by Hewlett-Packard Co. during its big IT conference here his week were not surprising.

Like many businesses, Sands is moving its worldwide operations to IP for everything connected to a network, telephones, televisions and even slots. A new Sands facility will be completely IP-based.

What's the advantage to having slots on IP?

It's the speed of transaction, said Vollmer, and there are potentially a lot of transactions. Every action on a slot machine is recorded, producing a small amount of data that is sent to the server. "We know exactly what's in that slot machine right now," Vollmer said.

Sands Corp. CIO Steve Vollmer shows off the Venetian Casino's data center.

The gambling decisions are determined by algorithms that generated millions of random combinations, remain on the slot machine.

The algorithms, which determine whether you win or lose and feel either lucky or stupid, can generate millions of random numeric combinations and are on the slot machine. The gambling decisions are made by the slot machine, not the server, said Vollmer.

A slot machine is essentially a PC and it's running a "very hardened Unix-type" code depending on the manufacture," he added.

Gambling is a highly regulated business, and those regulations extend to the data center and how server data is accessed. States and countries can vary on their procedures, requiring companies like Sands to be licensed by multiple government gambling authorities.

The Sands IT environment is also similar to other large corporate environments by using technology from a number of vendors.

Like many other casinos, Sands uses IBM System i servers because many core systems used in the gaming industry are written in IBM's RPG programming language. The System i runs financials, inventory, purchasing, among other systems.

HP networking equipment is used throughout the Sands chain while Windows-based environments run on servers made by Dell, HP and IBM are installed at the company's various properties. There are also some Unix systems, but not many.

"Ocean's Eleven is exaggerated," said Vollmer, at the start of the tour, perhaps to dampen expectations.

One of the questions put to Vollmer concerned the technology behind a fairly sophisticated penny slot with a large display showing fish hooks and fish with prize money. One person in the group had won about $7 using the machine. Hearing that, Vollmer smiled and delivered the eternal Vegas truth: "We'll get it back."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov , or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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