Getting the Starz Treatment with Vongo

Case Study: The entertainment group turns to Magnum and Cisco to help create a new movie download service.

Subscribers to Starz Entertainment Groups Vongo service, which launched in January, can pick and choose from among 1,000 movie titles and download them to Windows-based PCs, laptops and other portable devices. The concept—delivering entertainment directly to individuals rather than via a broadcast—represents a first for SEG, once a traditional cable television provider of movie services.

VOIP (voice over IP), in conjunction with other technologies, allowed SEG to use its IP-based network to create and deliver Vongo.

For SEG, incorporating VOIP into Vongo signaled a shift in how the company monitors and manages its IT infrastructure. For Magnum Technologies, SEGs provider of infrastructure management tools, the development of Vongo offered an opportunity to deploy its software in an environment of unprecedented complexity.

However, before VOIP made its way into Vongo, SEG first used the technology to shore up its aging telecommunications systems. With five branch offices connecting to a legacy PBX telecom system, SEG began to investigate VOIP in 2003.

"We had legacy switches at the regional offices that required high maintenance," said Tom Grove, network manager for SEG, in Englewood, Colo. While the legacy telecom system was performing up to par, SEG wanted to upgrade to enable future IP-based communications services.

Grove said that when SEG first began evaluating VOIP as a telecom alternative, the company looked at IP communications systems from Cisco Systems and Shoreline Communications. While both systems had comparable features and costs, Grove said Ciscos technology won out because SEG already had a Cisco backbone in place for its data network.

"The [Cisco] product would be a good fit with our network," Grove said.

SEG selected Cisco Unified IP telephony products, including Cisco Unified CallManager software and IP phones, Grove said. SEG also sent members of its network staff to a Cisco CallManager and Unity administration class to learn about the installation and ongoing maintenance of the system, responsibilities that would fall under Groves network management group, eliminating the need for dedicated telephony personnel.

At the start of 2004, the SEG IT department, working in conjunction with accounting, conducted a return on investment analysis for a comprehensive, companywide VOIP implementation. For future IP-based services, SEG planned to provide unified messaging—integrating various communications systems so that users could send and retrieve voice and e-mail messages from a single, unified interface.

/zimages/3/28571.gifCisco ties video streaming to the network. Click here to read more.

SEG launched its VOIP pilot in May 2004, retiring the existing Siemens equipment in its Atlanta office and installing in its place the Cisco equipment. Also, as part of the pilot, SEG conducted user and IT staff training. According to Grove, SEG implemented the pilot with an outside consulting company that helped with project management, system design, equipment installation and training.

With the IP voice network up and running in Atlanta, SEG gradually rolled out VOIP, regional office by regional office.

The VOIP installations coincided with SEGs development of a new product, called Vongo, that incorporated the technology. According to Grove, as a new business model that relied on multiple technologies, Vongo required SEG to thoroughly examine how it managed its IT infrastructure because business—quite literally—depended on it.

"The product is quite complex," said Grove, explaining that VOIP is one among more than 20 technologies that make up Vongo.

To effectively tie all the technologies together in Vongo, SEG enlisted Magnum Technologies, a provider of automated infrastructure management software.

In a previous job, Grove had heard about Magnum Technologies Advantage dashboard product, and when an outside contractor couldnt fulfill Vongos development timelines, Grove gave the company a call.

"We made a presentation and were asked to do a proof of concept the next week," recalled Greg Crow, CEO of Magnum Technologies, in Eden Prairie, Minn. "After 10 days, SEG purchased the solution."

SEG installed Magnums Advantage monitoring software to keep tabs on the processing performance and SLAs (service-level agreements) of the various technologies and vendors that make up Vongo. The top layer of Advantage includes a dashboard providing a view of infrastructure performance; SEG uses two other Magnum products for providing root-cause analysis and real-time monitoring.

Crow said that, through an open architecture, Advantage allows integration from nearly any point. If a customer is having an issue within a billing system or experiencing slow download times, Grove said the monitoring tool lets both operations and business staff know that technical issues are occurring in real time and pinpoints the problem quickly.

The monitoring system plays a big part in Vongo, a product that lets individual subscribers download movies and videos on-demand to televisions as well as PCs, laptops and other mobile devices, for $9.99 per month.

SEG has since used the Advantage product to monitor and manage the performance of its VOIP system, Grove said.

"With VOIP, we now know whether we have redundant hardware, and we better manage the voice traffic among our offices," Grove said.

SEG is beginning to use the Advantage tools to fine-tune the operational metrics of its VOIP system and figure cost savings, Grove added. The chief metric SEG will monitor in terms of the VOIP system is the call resolution time when Vongo customers contact the help desk with issues, he said.

"Vongo required a huge development effort with 30-odd developers in a conference room," Grove said. "With a lot of testing going on, we could determine the cause of any problems."

SEG has some pretty high hopes for Vongo; company CEO Robert Clasen said in a statement that Vongo "will provide the key content application that will drive a new era in portable video delivered over the Internet."

With that in mind, Grove said that one of the most important features of the dashboard is its capability to show business executives the direct effect that IT infrastructure performance has on the business.

"We use the dashboard to show how an outage affects our services, not just at the technical level but at the business level as well," Grove said.

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Case File: Starz Entertainment Group, Englewood, Colo.

  • Organizational snapshot: Provider of digital movies to consumers on a subscription basis
  • Business need: Creating a new service offering 1,000 movie titles that can be downloaded to Windows-based PCs, laptops and other portable devices
  • Technology partners: Cisco, for a new VOIP system, and Magnum, for providing monitoring and management software
  • Recommended solution: Cisco Unified CallManager software and IP phones; SEG also developed a new product called Vongo that incorporates the technology in offering the movie service

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