At Cineworld the business of entertainment technology and computing are getting ever closer: its IT head Vincent McGann explains how.
Vincent McGann is head of IT for UK cinema group Cineworld, which operates 78 sites, five of which are in the top ten highest-grossing cinemas in the UK and Ireland. The cinema sector operates on a 'peaks and troughs' basis – very busy when blockbusters are on release and during school holidays, for instance. Relying on the Web for ticket sales, trailer downloads and more, it is key that the Cineworld website offers continuous availability and can deal with high peak workloads. This places direct responsibility for uptime on the organisation's IT function.
In 2008 McGann started tendering for site hosting, but after a proposal from cloud-computing service operator Carrenza the project became much more. The company showed McGann what was possible with cloud technologies, offering Cineworld a package where it did not have to commit to purchasing specific hardware or bandwidth – everything would be provided on an as-needed basis with no capital outlay.
As head of IT do you face any issues that are specific to the cinema industry? For instance, how involved does the IT team get in regards to the move towards digital and 3D cinema?
IT involvement is becoming greater, certainly, with regards to the move to digital projection. Projection was always a completely separate side of the business to IT, a separate team dealt with that mechanical equipment, but digital projectors are servers.
The whole system is server-based so we are getting more involved in the procurement side of those systems. That is something I expect to become more common as those systems bed in. We are rolling out digital projectors across our circuit – we've gone past 50 per cent now, but we're a long way away from being completely digital.
Do you also see the IT department getting more involved in the 3D movement?
3D is very much linked in with that, it's an add-on to the digital projector. We are still using some of the team that previously worked with the 35mm projectors because they have specific skills. We are using them as first-line support for those systems. But when it comes down to it they are just servers, and it will become just a part of the businesses server estate.
What about digital distribution of movies to cinemas via the cloud?
There's a lot of talk about it, but it is not currently happening [at Cineworld]. At the moment [films] are shipped around the country on hard-drives. At some point it'll happen; the problem is the size of the files. A normal 2D file is approximately 200GB and a 3D 300GB. There is currently no way to send them across broadband links. Realistically you need at least 100Mbps throughput to do it. You can get 100Mbps links for fixed lines, but for broadband it's not there yet. One alternative for digital distribution is satellite, but there are issues: the length of time it would take, having those networks up during all that time and the integrity of the data when it arrives at the other end.
I'm sure we will do it, it's just a case of when the bandwidth is available or compression rates are drastically increased, so the files are not as big.
What were your reasons for reconsidering the website hosting arrangements? Were there any specific problems you were dealing with?
A The previous supplier, Orange Business Services, based in Paris, both hosted our site and did the development work for it; but we did not feel that they were the right people to be doing the development work and we wanted to have more influence over the look and feel of the site. There was not much initiative from them, and there was no real content management system, so we relied on them to make any changes. There were time delays, so it was difficult to do anything new or exciting.
Can you describe the importance of the site to Cineworld, in terms of revenue, say?
A It is very important to us, and it is becoming ever more so. We want it to become a larger revenue earner, but at the moment it is about 15 per cent.
What other cloud solutions providers put forward proposals?
Cable&Wireless and Rackspace were probably the two largest hosting providers involved. There was also a company called Titan who we had done some hosting work with several years earlier.
What were the main reasons for choosing Carrenza? Originally you were looking for a straightforward hosting arrangement; was it because it showed you an evolution of your original idea?
That was certainly partly it. Although it was not part of our original specification, Carrenza's team were the ones who came back with that kind of model, and it was quite attractive. What was also important to us was that someone was going to provide application support as well. Carrenza was flexible on that front. We felt that it was going to be able to offer us the level of support we required.
We have a relatively small development team and its ability to provide 24/7 support is quite small. We were going to rely on our hosting providers to give as much support as possible for the platform and for the application. That's attractive, because it means it frees up [resources] to do other things.
Give a breakdown of what the chosen solution entailed for Cineworld.
Originally we were using a Xen virtual platform. Basically, it started off as six Web and two database servers. Then we had an administration tier, which also had the booking engine in it as well. Plus there was a separate stadium platform. It was all on Apache Web servers using Tomcat, so it is a Java environment. We made the change last year, moving over to Carrenza's Oracle virtual machine platform, running on blade servers. The number of servers has not changed, but there are a couple of extra tiers that we now have – a separate email tier that deals with the sending-off of any emails to customers, and we have separated-out the card payment tier from the main admin tier.
Can you explain how the other applications fit in?
[As for providers], security testing is done by NCC Group, and the ticketing engine is provided by our Web development company, Can Factory. There is no specific financial management package within the website, but the card payment service for purchases is provided by Fidelity National. The company accounting package is Coda.
How was the cloud proposition sold to you?
At the time, cloud was relatively new. Although it's not that long ago – we're talking 2008 – talk of the cloud environment wasn't really around. What attracted us was that it was not your normal hosting solution. The main difference was that we did not have to purchase the servers.
Carrenza said, 'We've got a platform that is set up using virtual machines where we can host the whole thing, and manage and maintain all of that platform for you'. The fact that it was in the cloud was almost taken for granted really. We never wanted to locate the platform at our premises, it was always going to be at the hosting company's premises; but what [the other tenders] proposed was that we purchase the servers, but that they would do the maintenance.
Security is an issue for cloud adopters. How big a concern was it for Cineworld?
That's just something that you have to take into consideration, and I guess it depends on what the data is that you are storing in that system. For us at the time the main concern was around customer card data. When people buy tickets they have to enter their card data, but we are not storing that data on the website, so that was something that was taken out of the equation. As long as we made sure that we took precautions to make sure the site was as secure as it could be, we didn't think it was an unnecessary risk.
A proposal of moving to a cloud-based model might have thrown up some cultural issues internally. A lot of senior execs seem to struggle to get their heads around the concept. Did you have to put extra effort into explaining cloud to the non-techie Cineworld management?
A We did have to explain it to them because it wasn't something they were familiar with, but there were no real negatives to it. It really didn't require very much selling at all.
What were the kinds of problems that you faced during the move to cloud?
There were lots of issues. We weren't just moving the website from one hosting provider to another, it was a complete redesign, a complete rebuild of the system. There were lots of application issues, and inevitably you have questions around whether the problems you're seeing are application or platform issues.
I would have to say that in most cases they were application issues, because it was a completely new build. The first beta releases that we had were not stable to say the least. The platform set up by Carrenza worked pretty well from the start though, so we were pleased about that.
Did you have to throw a lot of human resource at the project to solve the problems and hit deadlines?
There were some late nights involved for certain individuals. We had to go live on a set date, which happened, but there were a few hiccups at the beginning. For a period after that we were doing quite a lot of intensive work doing re-releases of the application, and so forth.
You always expect there are going to be issues. It is naive to think that with any big system that you're changing, there won't be. But it is probably true to say that there were more issues than we expected and after the go-live there was a period of a couple of months where there was more involvement and work than I had initially expected.
How has the new system bedded in? You are seeing returns, presumably?
Absolutely – the site is going from strength to strength. We're continuing to see an increase in visits, certainly over the last 12 to 18 months, and we have got projects now where we are looking to increase our conversion rates. What we want to do is incentivise more people to book online.
The site gets used a lot by people to see what's showing, what time the film starts, things like that. In the cinema industry it's a fact that the vast majority of people still just go to the cinema and buy their ticket on the night. What we want to do is try to increase the number of people who are buying their ticket online in advance. As said, one of the reasons we undertook this project was because with the previous site we had very little ability to change things. We now have total control, and we work closely with the developers, so are constantly making changes to try and improve the site.
Are you able to gauge what the solution is contributing to Cineworld's environmental performance objectives?
The proposal enabled us to cut down on our carbon footprint. At that stage we had recently become a public company, and that was a positive thing to be able to announce in regards to helping our green credentials. [But] I can't say that when we went through the tender process it was one of the main priorities under consideration. We were thinking that we were going to have various servers using up power, and so on.
How much of a difference has adopting a cloud model made to your capabilities and workload as an IT team? Is the team now able to focus on more/new projects and work towards other business ambitions?
We have a good relationship between the three parties: Carrenza, and the development and IT teams. We work together to provide the best possible website. This means I do not need lots of resources from my own team to constantly monitor what is happening with the website. If there any issues with the servers, the network provision, and such like, we are able to leave that to Carrenza. So, yes, it has allowed us to work on other things.
So what sort of other things have now gained your attention?
We are in the process of upgrading and replacing our wide area network (WAN) supplier. We are rolling that out to our sites and head office, which will massively increase the amount of bandwidth.
We are also in the middle of a tender process for replacing our EPOS system. Clarity is our current supplier, and Clarity, Compeso, Vista, Titan Technology (different to the hosting company), and Radiant were some of the tenders. We are near to deciding who the provider will be and are looking at rolling out towards the end of this year.
What about project management? Do you work from one project straight into another?
Yes. I kind of thought it was like that everywhere, maybe it's just us at Cineworld. There are lots of ongoing projects, this year and next. Our business has recognised that by investing in our IT systems and infrastructure it's a way to give ourselves a competitive edge.
More often than not the work an IT function undertakes depends on the size of its budget. Does this rule apply at Cineworld?
Yes. It's been recognised that if we want to be the leader, then we need to make investments. We're lucky in the fact that there is budget available. If there's a good cost benefit justification for something, then the business wants to do it. There are several projects that we identified as being key and they've been acted upon. *