In a tight economy, even casinos have to watch their budgets, but IT shops have to move fast to keep up with the competition, says Rod Luck, vice president of IT at the Cache Creek Casino Resort in northern California.
With a tight budget, Luck says he and his staff are "pretty much just keeping our systems running," but he's made time to pursue a social networking and mobile strategy, and is ramping up an existing virtualization project to improve labor efficiency.
Luck, who has about 25 IT staffers to serve a 415,000-square-foot resort, notes that the casino uses Facebook and Twitter to connect with customers, and looking for ways to keep customers informed via their cell phones. A pilot project on the mobile front is allowing customers to receive text message updates when their restaurant table is ready, or to receive information on hotel room availability.
"We've done a pilot and now we're moving forward into other areas, because you know, almost everybody has a cell phone," Luck says.
While the casino has its own public Facebook and Twitter accounts, Luck wants to make sure employees don't overuse the tools and open themselves up to security threats. The casino has policies limiting use of Facebook and Twitter to business purposes only, and is monitoring employees' Internet use to see "what is going on as far as who's utilizing it and for what reasons," he says.
"Right now there's a lot of emphasis on virus detection and how to protect our data," Luck says. "More people are getting into social computing, like Facebook and Twitter, and we're getting into that ourselves. My challenge is in the security aspect."
Many CIOs have banned use of Facebook and Twitter because of concerns about security and productivity. Although social networking increases the importance of having good firewalls and other protections in place, Luck says he welcomes the new technologies because "they're a good way for people to keep in contact with each other, and they certainly help us keep our customers informed."
Cache Creek's data center consists mainly of HP servers and switches, with VMware providing virtualization and Pillar Data Systems providing storage. Cache Creek went from using direct-attached storage to Pillar three years ago, as it needed a centralized storage system to handle casino player data, disaster recovery and the needs of virtual servers.
Luck has about 150 virtual servers running on 15 physical boxes. When asked if virtualization posed any unforeseen challenges, Luck says "no, as a matter of fact we found virtualization very easy, and as you probably know we can virtualize anything within an hour."
Cache Creek has deployed 84TB for production and 44TB for development with Pillar's "application-aware" storage system, which is designed to provide high disk utilization rates and to respond to the unique requirements of individual applications.
The networked storage system was important for allowing the quick creation of virtual machines and associated storage, and also for serving data to casino applications that let Cache Creek track player data and offer special deals to frequent gamblers.
Luck says his IT shop isn't planning to implement any major changes in 2010, because of the economy, but says virtualization has allowed his team to make more efficient use of its time. The economic troubles won't last forever, so he's always on the lookout for new casino technologies, such as server-based gaming, which can download games to slot machines to give players a wider choice of games. Cache Creek hasn't deployed server-based gaming systems yet but may do so in the next few years.
"Being in an organization that runs 24 hours, seven days a week has its challenges," Luck says. "You're always on call and always trying to keep up with the latest technologies. Casino business is so competitive that you have to come up with a better product and you have to have more information to generate customer service, so the customers come back."
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This story, "Casino banks on social networking, mobile technology and virtualization," was originally published at NetworkWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in virtualization at Network World.