Casino places winning bet on Marathon apps

In a city built on winning the tourist dollar, Las Vegas casino operator Station Casinos has taken an opposite but equally lucrative route that depends heavily on its use of technology.

While glamorous palaces located on the Las Vegas Strip target high-spending out-of-towners, Station's 15 casinos -- mostly located in suburban areas miles away -- target Las Vegas' burgeoning local population, one of the fastest-growing in the U.S. in recent years. "Our customers are primarily people who work in the valley but don't want to fight their way to the Strip after work," said Steve Bastille, director of servers and desktop systems at Station.

Targeting that demographic has been fruitful -- Station topped US$1 billion in revenue for the first time last year -- and it has shaped the company's business strategy. Rather than investing in expensive gimmicks to woo and wow customers, Station placed its bet on software from Marathon Technologies Corp. to help ensure repeat business for its bread-and-butter moneymaker: slot machines.

"We are not bringing in high volumes of high rollers playing the table games like poker and blackjack. Most of our customers play the slots," Bastille said. Station's larger casinos have about 3,000 slot machines each, and the company operates about 25,000 slots in total.

These aren't the primitive mechanical beasts of yesteryear. The slots Station operates are fully computer-driven devices with cutting-edge features. For one, customers can now insert paper tickets, rather than having to lug around a huge bag of coins. At the end of play, the slot machines spit out a ticket customers can exchange for cash.

The slot machines also communicate with back-end servers to keep track of players' cumulative activity. These database-driven applications rely on players swiping their "Boarding Pass" loyalty cards before each play. The loyalty card gives customers the chance, "at the right machine at the right time, you could pull a nonwinning hand but still win up to US$150,000 through our Jumbo Jackpot program," Bastille said.

With casinos open around the clock, the customer-loyalty program relies on servers being up and running continuously. "It's fairly critical if we lose communication with our floor," Bastille said. "The slots keep working, [but] they don't pay out bonuses. The system may not even know the player's name when they play the slots. Basically, we can't provide the features that bring customers back."

The servers were prone to more failures than Bastille liked. Moreover, he could not solve the challenge conventionally by running the applications in a server cluster architecture, a popular way of providing automatic fail-over features, because the casino management applications Station ran were not "cluster-aware," he said.

The alternative, activating cold standby servers, could require a system administrator to roll out of bed, drive to a casino and flip the correct on switches, a process that could easily take many hours. So Bastille turned to Marathon's EverRun FT software. The software offers a way to keep Windows systems up and running in case of a potential hardware or software-related crash.

Station finished implementing EverRun late in 2005. Since then, said Bastille, none of Station's casinos have gone down because of a server hardware or EverRun software failure. Moreover, he has been able to reduce the number of servers per casino, including live and backup servers, from six to two by consolidating applications.

"There's very little we have to do. We get alerts if anything does fail. It's been a really big help for us to keep our casino floors up and running," he said.

While Bastille said he doesn't have a figure on how much money Station has saved with the lessened downtime, he is such a fan that he has successfully convinced a number of other casinos to adopt EverRun. He declined to say which ones would be moving to the technology.

Marathon confirmed that Cache Creek Casino Resort near Sacramento and Aristocrat Technologies, a slot machine maker in Las Vegas, are among a "couple-dozen" of its gaming-related customers. That number will likely expand: In June, International Gaming Technology, one of two leading makers of casino software besides Bally Technologies, announced that it is bundling Marathon's software with its casino management software.

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