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Out of the Blue: It’s After Midnight; Unplug the Volcano

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Las Vegas is the American dream on steroids: sun, hope, greed, and opulence, all melding in lavish overabundance. Casinos, the cathedrals of excess, compete for visiting faithful—their imposing, fanciful contours lurching skyward, eternally bathed in a celestial pandemic of neon light.

The Mirage casino-resort opened in 1988, a glamorous addition to a town celebrated for its extravagant displays since the days Elvis looked good in tight pants. It is perhaps best known for its signature volcano, a pyrotechnic mini-mountain that actually erupts every 15 minutes from dusk until midnight. Depending on your perspective, or your residential proximity, the volcano is either the neatest attraction north of Disney World, or a colossal nuisance you wish a giant animatronic dog would put out.

The Mirage, as the name implies, is indeed a reality apart. As guests enter the resort, they pass beneath a 100-foot glass dome, which shelters a verdant rainforest. Sixty- foot palms arch over sparkling waterfalls and placid pools ringed in tropical orchids, growing in utter defiance of the unforgiving desert. The wall behind the registration desk holds a giant aquarium filled with over 1,000 dazzling, warm-water species, including sharks. Nearby, dolphins frolic in a 2.5-million-gallon habitat complete with artificial coral reef. If you prefer turf to surf, tour an enormous jungle playpen constructed for the comfort of the rare white tigers used by Siegfried & Roy in their magic act.

Subtlety is not spoken here. “Away from the strip,” insists Kris Neely, “it’s just like any other city in America.” He pauses, then adds, “Well, any other city with 115-degree temperatures.” In my mind, I compare Vegas to Needles, another of the nation’s perennial hot spots, and wonder which of the two would be less delighted by the comparison.

Civic pride aside, if his name sounds familiar, it’s because Kris Neely was formerly the data connectivity editor and director of education with Midrange Computing.

Last year, Neely left the perfect air-conditioned clime (and high state taxes) of Southern California for the perfect air-conditioned clime (and no state taxes) of the Nevada desert. There, he landed a job with Mirage Resorts, Inc., where he plies his considerable skills as lead systems engineer in a modest—if only by Vegas standards—IS operation with 240 people and a $25 million budget. That, I’m thinking, would be way big in Needles.

Las Vegas, Neely claims, is the Valhalla for the AS/400-skilled. “For its size, Vegas probably has the highest concentration of AS/400s in the country,” he tells me. Not only do casinos use them widely (Circus Circus has 17), but a score of large companies—including Hughes, Pacific Bell, Citibank, and Cardinal Health (which, after a recent merger, has about 80)—are all AS/400 abundant.

The Mirage employs three AS/400s in support of its mission-critical applications. “Reliability is crucial,” Neely says. “We’re the archetypal 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a- week operation. We never close.” On the surface, Neely explains, there doesn’t seem to be that much difference between the AS/400’s 99.98 percent uptime reliability and an Intel processor’s 95 percent. “But project that over a year, and the AS/400 is down for only about four unanticipated hours, while the Intel system is down for about four days.”

Hardware stability was an important consideration when the Mirage became the first casino-resort in Las Vegas to install and configure Windows NT on the AS/400’s Integrated PC Server. The Mirage currently has over 100 PC-based servers running Windows NT, and this move, Neely explains, “will allow us, as situations warrant it, to replace the PC servers with the more reliable AS/400 and thus improve the availability of our mission-critical data.” For similar reasons, Neely is using NetServer on the AS/400 (as an alternative to selective PC servers) for file and print sharing for Windows-based clients.

The resort relies on four keystone applications, none of which, oddly enough, are directly involved with gambling. Neely calls them The Four Horsemen, “and as long as we keep them running,” he says, “we’re OK.” The “horsemen” are composed of front-desk operations (including guest check-in), credit checking (the resort would prefer you gamble with your money, not theirs), food services (to keep the customers satiated), and payroll (to keep the employees satiated).

To fully appreciate the role of the AS/400s, it is necessary to understand the magnitude of the Mirage Resorts’ operations. Besides the hotel and casino that bears its name, Mirage Resorts owns, is currently building, or is planning to develop eight additional properties. These include Treasure Island, the Golden Nugget, the exclusive Shadow Creek Golf Course, and Bellagio, a $1.7 billion, high-end luxury, all-the- indulgence-nearly-$2-billion-will-buy hotel and casino complex slated to open in October of this year.

The three production AS/400s that service this opulent empire are all model 620s. One runs payroll for all the employees working on all of the projects and properties that comprise Mirage Resorts, Inc. Another runs inventory and purchasing for each of the above enterprises. These two systems use Vision Solutions’ Vision/400 software to mirror their objects to a third IBM system, which Neely calls “our high-availability AS/400.” The mirroring system, along with over 100 PC servers and six Tandem systems, is linked to a StorageTek Timberline series automated robotic tape silo. Backups are not left to the tender discretion of a computer operator because there are no computer operators. But more on that later.

The company’s vast network is undergoing major revision. Neely designed a project code, named SimpleNet, that will replace all AS/400-related twinaxial cabling, dumb terminals, twinax-attached printers, gateways, Fibermux multiplexers, and Startek boxes. In the future, all AS/400 devices will be attached to a TCP/IP-ATM network. Neely

describes the new network strategy: “Wyse thin-client ‘bricks’ with both Citrix WinFrame software and Microsoft’s Windows Terminal Server, and PCs running Citrix’s ICA client will be deployed to replace PCs and dumb terminals. The staff is installing between 100 and 200 bricks per month, corporatewide, on all platforms, including AS/400, RS/6000, Tandem, and Windows NT. Printers are connected to TCP/IP using AnyNet—essentially TCP/IP-encapsulated SNA—and a new product from I-O Corp. called I-O 5450 MPS.” This creates, for all practical purposes, an electronic 54xx cluster controller for printer connectivity in the 5450. “It’s a much better and more responsive solution,” Neely says, “than attaching AS/400 printers to TCP/IP nets using HP JetDirect boxes.”

Neely is also experimenting with the latest in AS/400 Java-based connectivity, Advanced BusinessLink’s Javalin. He reports an impressive install time of—are you ready—just three minutes, and an unobtrusive footprint of approximately 44 KB on the client machine. “Javalin provides amazingly fast client-AS/400 connectivity,” Neely counsels.

The entire enterprise is managed remotely from a command center situated in what is known as The Design Center. “We use Boole and Babbage’s COMMAND/POST software,” Neely says, “to manage our enterprise net.” One of the company’s goals is to keep technology hidden so that it does not intrude on the experience of the guests. “We want to provide our guests with the benefits of technology without distracting them from the real distractions,” Neely cleverly summarized. The company even eschews phonemail, insisting that callers always be personally attended (a model of wise management and, by itself, an excellent reason to patronize the Mirage).

The command center concept has eliminated the need for manual intervention in network operations. “There are no human operators at any of our casino/hotel computer rooms,” Neely says proudly. And out of an IS staff of over 200, only Neely and two programmers are dedicated to the AS/400s. “The Mirage,” he said, “is a perfect commercial for the reliability and ease of use of the AS/400.”

Putting on his former director-of-education hat for a moment, Neely commented that he sees a growing need and a growing opportunity for AS/400 education. “So much has changed, and there are so many new possibilities,” he says, “that many IS professionals don’t know how to get the most out of their AS/400s.” He recounted talking to an AS/400 systems programmer who had been ill and unable to work for the past year and a half. When Neely described some of the things he was doing at the Mirage, the programmer said, “The AS/400 world I knew 18 months ago is dead, isn’t it?”

Just as the AS/400 keeps reinventing itself so, it seems, does Las Vegas. Besides the Mirage Resorts’ extravagant Bellagio development, there are several other casino complexes under development that will add another 20,000 hotel rooms and untold attractions to a city built on the proposition that more is better.

I asked Neely if he ever gets tired of the surreal trappings of Las Vegas. “No,” he said, “but, after a while, you do start to take it all for granted.” He recalled talking to someone at COMMON in New Orleans, “and the guy was gaga over video poker.” A reminder of the pertinence of context.

From the context of my home in rural Oregon, Vegas remains surreal. Rainforest in the desert, fabricated volcanoes, obedient tigers, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins swimming over synthetic coral—it’s all part of the casino culture where nothing is quite real, including, I’m afraid, the likelihood of winning.



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