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Planning for Convergence

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October 01, 2005
Application | Convergence
Douglas Clark - dclark@tyleryan.com

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© 2005 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

Convergence has become one of the current hot topics in our industry and it covers a wide range of elements. Data and voice carriage is converging into Internet protocol (IP) delivery.

More recently, the ability to provide video-on-demand (VOD) and free-to-guest (FTG) programming via IP has also been implemented. Applications are converging by either combining multiple modules or by becoming better integrated through open interface communications such as those driven by the group Hospitality Technology Next Generation (HTNG). All of this convergence, however, relies on a physical IP network backbone.

Hotels are not unique in their need to upgrade and/or replace their physical infrastructure, but the number of discreet systems and applications in a hotel is far greater than most other businesses. Effectively, a hotel is a small city with the need to provide, track, account and bill for services provided. This complexity makes the planning of such changes all the more critical if the final outcome is to be successful.

Until very recently, hotels were required to run separate cable infrastructures for most of the systems and applications utilized. Specifically this applied to PMS, POS, master antenna television, CCTV, phone and admin network, and even time clocks and serially interfaced devices. Vendors have now, for the most part, adopted the IP standard and have learned to co-exist within a shared infrastructure. This means that the cabling in new construction is greatly simplified and the only need to install more than a robust IP infrastructure would be driven by vendor or franchisor legacy systems or specifications. The network must be well planned since this convergence places the onus on the property, not the vendor, for connectivity.

It is much more complex, though, to retrofit existing properties onto an IP infrastructure, and it is important that properties begin the planning process well in advance of a specific need. Such a need is often realized when one of the legacy systems that ran on a proprietary network needs to be replaced. Such a project should never be viewed in isolation, but rather be considered in light of all other legacy systems in the property and the many guestroom initiatives currently being deployed. Eventually, all such systems will make the migration to an IP infrastructure, but this will likely occur over a period of years as each reaches its end of life. The proliferation of wireless solutions has also changed the potential deployment strategy of many systems, but must be as carefully planned to ensure coverage. A multiyear plan should be developed that incorporates the infrastructure upgrade in advance of the application migration.

Renovations, in particular when they involve more than just soft goods, provide an excellent opportunity to retrofit the cable plant in an operation. It is essential that cabling and network components be assimilated into the budget process at the outset. All too often these essential elements are left out of the planning process and then are perceived to have been what exceeded the budget when, or if, they are eventually incorporated. During a hard renovation, the cost of opening and refinishing walls and floors is often already covered by construction dollars, but it is far more costly to do this after the fact. During renovation, assuming the affected operation is closed for the duration, the previous cable infrastructure can be removed while the new one is being installed. When this step is not taken, the resulting tangle becomes progressively more difficult to manage over time.

In addition to the change in basic cable requirements, any plan must also encompass a review of the existing IP network hardware for both its capacity and functionality. Older hubs and equipment that cannot be managed or modified must be replaced to ensure security, fault tolerance and adequate connectivity. Historically, technology equipment and cable access has been relegated to broom closets and crawl spaces, and this also needs to be addressed in the migration plan. Current equipment specifications require that it be kept in clean, secure, dust-free, dry and climate conditioned surroundings. It is a fact that business has become extremely dependent on technology and hotels are no different. Adequately safeguarding the investment protects both the value of the assets themselves, but more importantly, the information held and moved within them.

A very important consideration for a property migrating from numerous isolated systems and cable plants is the need to address security. In the old, closed environment, security was less of a concern, but an IP environment should be well secured. A clear understanding of the required ports, services, access rights and inter-application connectivity for each component system is necessary to design a secure network. Also, the all too common practice of letting vendors use their own default (and widely known) passwords for remote support access must be stopped. The type of access required for support frequently permits not only direct access to the specific application and data, but also to the entire network if not properly secured against both malicious and inadvertent actions. It is highly beneficial to periodically audit the network’s security using external resources.

Documentation is a very important element of such changes. The plan itself, the physical infrastructure and the security scheme must be thoroughly documented and reviewed for accuracy both pre- and post-installation. Many times it is discovered that the documentation of the current infrastructure at a property is actually no more than pre-construction drawings of the original facility and reflect neither the inevitable changes made during the build-out or in subsequent years. Testing must also form part of the documentation process to guarantee that everything functions as specified. Solid, tested and maintained documentation will reduce the cost of change and greatly enhance future planning endeavours.

Convergence surrounds us today personally with our phones, calendars, music and e-mail all coming together in the palm of our hands. Since hotels are a reflection of their guests’ requirements, it is not surprising that a corresponding level of convergence must occur within them as well. The connectivity that the infrastructure provides is the foundation from which tomorrow’s services will be delivered.

Douglas Clark is the principal at The TyleRyan Group which specializes in accommodating tomorrow’s technologies in today’s business decisions. He can be reached at dclark@tyleryan.com.

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