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CIO interview - Gregg Lowe reduces complexity at Boyd Gaming

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth July 5, 2024
Summary:
A look at how the Vegas-based CIO Gregg Lowe tackled high outage levels at gaming and resort provider at Boyd Gaming

An image of a Diamond Jo Casino lit up at night
(Image sourced via Boyd Gaming)

Boyd Gaming has taken the risks out of its hybrid cloud infrastructure estate. CIO Gregg Lowe and his team have tackled outages that dogged the US gaming and resort provider and reduced operational costs.  

Boyd Gaming is a significant gaming operator in the US, with 28 venues in 10 states. That geographic dispersion adds to his business and technology challenges. Each of the 10 states has its own gaming laws, which means Boyd Gaming has to operate the venues in each state as a separate entity. The Boyd Gaming venues provide casinos, hotels, conference venues, restaurants, and bars. For CIO Lowe, this means a technology responsibility that has to provide the full range of services customers could require. He says: 

In the hotels, there is house cleaning through facilities management; in gaming, there are the tables, slots, bingo and sports book betting. There are also retail, food and beverages services, and convention centres and arenas. Every aspect of this involves technology. From the moment a customer steps into the door of any of our properties, they are dealing with technology.

The online gaming business continues to grow, with the quarter one results of 2024 showing an increase in their online business, whilst the physical casinos were impacted by what the CEO Keith Smith described as a challenging start to the year. CIO Lowe says: 

We are a company that relies on people having discretionary funds, and when that gets tight, we feel that, and we are going through a minor constriction in the market. So every bit of operational expense that we in IT can curtail helps.

When customers have money to spend on a show, meal or the slots, they expect a good experience. At the time Lowe joined Boyd Gaming the business was struggling with technology stability. 

When I came onboard, there was, on average, 25 outages a month of a priority one or two level, so that affected the customer and therefore the revenue. 

In our casinos, if the slot machine goes down, you go into what is called hand pay mode. So, a player cannot leave the machine until an attendant comes along, and pays them and clears the ticket. It is very disruptive, and our market is so competitive that people will get up and go across the street and gamble at a different casino.

Always On 

To put an end to the outages, in 2019, Lowe launched a programme dubbed Always On to overhaul the digital infrastructure of the business; he says: 

“Always On’ sounded simple, so that all the people in the business understood its aims, but there was so much complexity to deal with. ‘Always on’ means just that, it never goes down and we have now gone consecutive quarters without outages, which is almost unheard of in our industry due to the complexity we all have.

The Always On programme modernized the infrastructure technologies, networking and applications estate across the entire Boyd Gaming business. Due to the array of regulatory environments Boyd Gaming operates across, the business needs a high degree of on-premise computing and cloud computing. Boyd Gaming had a mix of VMware and Nutanix technologies across its estate before Lowe joined the business. To reduce complexity and decrease outages, the CIO and his team defined a new architecture; he says: 

We put out an RFP, and Nutanix AHV was our decision as there were cost savings and functionality benefits. The complexity of our environment would mean it would take two years to do the migration, as we had to do it one property at a time without any disruption, which is challenging.

That migration, which included a data center migration taking place in May 2024 as Lowe and I met, means Boyd Gaming has no three-tier architecture in its estate now. On the infrastructure modernization, the CIO says: 

I would love to say it was perfect. It hasn't been, but that is the challenge of business, and I told our account manager that we would be both working out of Podunk, Iowa, to resolve issues.

The integration, Lowe says, had issues arise from both sides and he credits Nutanix for making it clear what he and his team needed to resolve if the vendor was to successfully implement its technology. He adds: 

With every rose, there are thorns. You cannot have any disruptions in the cut-over, and it has been quite a journey to get where we are.

By tackling the infrastructure, networking and applications, the CIO has also increased the level of integration across the business, which has benefited loyalty programmes. 

Looking ahead, Lowe says it is vital that Boyd Gaming understands that its technology infrastructure is not a commodity, as he believes that when technology is treated as a commodity, organizations fail to get the full value from their investments. 

Boyd Gaming is Lowe's second gaming industry role, having been VP of IT Operations at MGM Resorts International for four years. Prior to moving into gaming, Lowe held director of operations roles in tech firms Sunrise and Comcast, but has also led technology operations in retail with Abercrombie & Fitch and bankers JP Morgan Chase. 

At Boyd Gaming, the CIO is responsible for 350 technologists, all based in the USA and works in close partnership with the firm's chief digital officer (CDO), Blake Rampmaeir, who hired Lowe into the CIO role. 

My take

Lowe's point: "People will get up and go across the street and gamble at a different casino" gets straight to the point of what CIOs and digital leaders have to achieve - deliver the outcome the customer expects. This is often referred to as table stakes, and that is a pretty clear analogy for Lowe and Boyd Gaming. Lowe's story shows how the market often dictates the complexity of the business and, therefore, the complexity of the digital estate, but his Always On strategy reveals that there are always ways to simplify, reduce technology operating costs and improve the outcome for the customer. 

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