Thursday, November 19, 2009

AMF bowls for customers with video sharing over managed I

AMF bowls for customers with video sharing over managed IP

Company tests automated heating controls, video surveillance using nationwide IP
By Matt Hamblen

AMF Bowling Centers Inc. is wrapping up the roll-out of a $2 million nationwide network equipment upgrade that supports Voice over IP (VoIP) and video streaming, and includes turning over all network management to Verizon Business for three more years.

AMF has 300 bowling centers in 38 states with more than 9,000 employees. As part of a contract with Verizon, the company is now relying on Verizon for an IP network that supports VoIP, point of sale devices and credit card transactions, and web hosting.

The IP network also supports a centralized video surveillance system that is now being launched, as well as a centralized energy management system being tested in several bowling centers.

Additionally, because bowling has become a multimedia experience for customers, video and audio streaming of music videos is piped to most of the bowling centers using the IP network, said Harsha Bellur, vice president of IT at AMF.

"We have extreme sound and light shows over projection screens in most locations with music videos that play while people are bowling," Bellur said.

The contract with Verizon, signed early this year, will cost AMF about $800,000 a year, in addition to the $2 million equipment cost for Adtran routers in each center and cabling installations, he said.

AMF's annual network services cost has gone up slightly with the Verizon managed service, but the number of IP applications and network reliability have far exceeded what was previously available, Bellur said. "The ROI was on the wall, but we had to do this and it made a lot of sense to invest, even with the recession," Bellur said in an interview.

Before hiring Verizon for the managed IP service, AMF was using Verizon to provide a site-to-site VPN service, which relied on cable modems and DSL, and required AMF to work with 36 different ISPs.

One of the biggest advantages of using a managed service from a nationwide provider like Verizon is having Service Level Agreements (SLAs) to guarantee service, Bellur said. With cable modems and DSL there was not consistent bandwidth, while demanding applications like video were not possible.

The SLAs have already come in handy, resulting in a credit from Verizon because VoIP service in Atlanta and Virginia Beach, Va., was knocked out recently more than 3.5 hours -- a provision of the SLA -- due to regional flooding, Bellur said. "Verizon has kept up with its SLAs and offered a financial remedy," he said.

While the Verizon VoIP quality is generally good, one downside is that voice service goes down whenever there is a data network outage. Because of the recent flood-related outages, AMF is planning to provision at least one analog phone line in each center to provide an automatic failover for voice services.

"It's back to the future with the analog failover," he said, noting that AMF is now testing existing analog lines that were not being used to see which are resilient enough for failover duty.

"The voice outages were a challenge and we learned the hard way with the floods," he said. "It caused some heartburn and was not something we anticipated, but we have options."

The managed services contract with Verizon has not led to layoffs in the 29-person IT staff, although Verizon is managing all circuits, routers and cloud computing services. The added Verizon support has meant AMF can strengthen its end-user computer support desk, which now is staffed by seven of the 29 in IT, Bellur said.

Bellur and others picked Verizon partly because of its nationwide network, he said. AT&T Inc. and regional service provider Paetec also bid.

The centralized energy management system for AMF is undergoing trial runs now, to test the IP network automatically turning on and off heating and air conditioning according to hours of each bowling center.

The video surveillance system is designed to prevent theft and is just being installed to use the IP network, Bellur said.

While AMF centers are actively using the network to support video and audio, Bellur said his team is contemplating using video displays as digital signs that would show pricing and examples of products on sale, including food and alcohol.

In addition, training videos could be piped over the IP network, Bellur said. A longer term conceptual project has been discussed to stream videos of bowlers or birthday parties being held at bowling centers to relatives in other cities. Potentially, self-service kiosks for ordering food are possible, and online posting of scores could take place, shared over the nationwide network.

"Teams between two cities could host a tournament sharing tournament brackets," he said. "We're brainstorming, but it all comes down to costs."

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