The Tower of Power: The makeover of a national landmark

Everyone needs a makeover every now and then – it was no different for Toronto’s CN Tower. The World’s Tallest Free-Standing building needed some sprucing up to its network, so it hired Smartech Consulting Inc. to come in and take a look. Now, less than eight months later, the newly revamped Tower is open for business in a whole new way.

When a new management team, TrizecHahn Corp., took over the CN Tower a few years ago, the decision was made to begin massive changes to its operations. TrizecHahn wanted to reintroduce Toronto’s CN Tower to the public, and reinvent it as one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions.

Amy Tong, vice-president of finance and administration at the Tower, was hired on in 1997. At that time, she noticed there were significant problems with the network systems set up for the Tower.

A token-ring network with mixed protocols was in place. The CN Tower was running its finances on an AS/400, it had some NT 3.5.1 machines, and part of its restaurant inventory system was on Unix. The whole idea was to take all of the disparate systems and move them to a platform that made them easier to work with and easier to manage.

Toronto-based Smartech was brought in to manage the IT changes. The first step, according to Felix Chau, chief systems architect at Smartech, was an analysis of all the systems that were in place to determine how they were connected to each other.

Next was the planning, which needed to be done carefully, Chau explained. But there was also a strict timeline — the whole project had to be completed before the tourism season began in April.

“The difficulties were that there were old applications depending on the network,” Chau said. “So do you change the network first or do you change the applications first? Those were the kinds of difficulties we ran into.”

The whole process was a very useful one, said Tong, as it helped to determine what the priorities were for the Tower, and helped to determine what needed to be tackled first.

“Things have been deployed in a very logical, systematic way on the basis of the priorities we have identified for them (Smartech), and according to our strategic goals,” she said. “So the more important projects we tackled first.”

There was a lot of work to be done, but the main goal was to ensure that the transition to the new systems was done as smoothly and seamlessly as possible, according to the CN Tower’s Tong.

The Tower decided to go with Microsoft as its software provider, and Microsoft NT as its operating platform. A factor in this decision, according to Chau, was the level of familiarity most people had with the use of the Microsoft platform.

Microsoft was involved in the project to an extent, according to Paul Christilaw, marketing manager at Microsoft Canada.

“We provided certain levels of guidance and discussion on how the technology could be used,” Christilaw said.

As the hardware base, the team decided to go with Dell workstations. Microsoft Office 97, Microsoft Outlook, and Exchange Server 5.5 were all deployed, as well as a corporate fax server, and a dial-in server which was installed for remote workers.

“On top of the network and the servers and the applications being changed, we also set out to build on top of it our intranet and our data warehousing,” explained Chau. “Those are the systems that really bring value to the CN Tower. The data warehouse is functioning where you can get trend reports, and the intranet is also working very well. It enables different departments to communicate with each other and share information company-wide.”

The new data warehouse and intranet systems are running on Microsoft BackOffice Server 4.5 and SQL Server 7.0. The Web server that is embedded in Windows NT, the Internet Information Server 4.0, is the foundation for the Tower’s intranet.

There are a total of eleven departments that are affected by the new technology and using it. Each department has a section and sub-intranet, Chau said.

The infrastructure migration from token-ring to Ethernet was pretty painless, according to Tong. The IT team converged three LANs, network switches and devices, and fibre optics using TCP/IP protocol, and created a network monitoring facility.

“From a user standpoint, this project was as painless, as seamless, as smooth as anybody could expect,” Tong said. “The users all go home one day, come back the next, and we have all new systems. No one even notices the differences,” except for perhaps a change in what physically appears on the screen.

The IT team at the Tower chose to use a TCP/IP as its only network protocol to help reduce the cost of maintenance. The team designed and deployed a fast Ethernet, switched IP network.

Part of the ultimate goal was to make the customer experience as enjoyable as possible, and to ensure that, Tong said, it was important that the staff had the best possible technology at its fingertips. After all, customers were the biggest reason for the improvements.

“Behind the quest for customer service is also the need to train our staff and employees, and to equip them with the latest tools so they can serve the customers best,” she said.

So, to help staff better assist customers, the Unix restaurant point-fo-sale system was replaced with a touch-screen food and beverage system; a new system based on bar code technology was implemented to better manage inventory and table management; and a new reservation system, which was NT-based and graphical, replaced an old DOS-based system.

Chau said he anticipated that there might have been problems with the applications, as they are the only things that interface with the user.

“The restaurant system, the ticketing system – those systems are highly visible, and they also include a huge amount of training on the part of the CN Tower,” he explained. Fortunately, the staff was trained on time and on budget, according to Chau, so there were no problems.

The results of the changes are already being seen — productivity has increased in certain areas, Tong said. For example, when using the previous inventory system, time would have been spent manually counting out inventory for the month-end report, but the automated food and beverage inventory system has reduced that time by about 75 per cent, she said.

The CN Tower is also now well-positioned for the future, according to Tong.

“More important to me is the potential of having such an integrated system in place, which will now position the CN Tower extremely well for any new technology or initiatives that we want to undertake,” she explained.

The CN Tower recently launched its new Web site, and Microsoft’s Christilaw has indicated that there will be more to come from the partnership between the CN Tower and Microsoft.