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HomeColumnsArticlesNetworking Intelligence – Connecting Your Staff To Hotel Data, Each Other, And The Internet Is A Critical Success Factor But… by Chris Hartmann – HVS International

Networking Intelligence – Connecting Your Staff To Hotel Data, Each Other, And The Internet Is A Critical Success Factor But… by Chris Hartmann – HVS International



Almost every hotel today has a network in place for staff use. At a minimum, your network provides terminal connectivity to operational applications (such as PMS), and most properties also have e-mail, Internet access and ideally, some ability to store and share files centrally. More than likely that network has been installed for a long time, with little maintenance and support. In today`s increasingly risky computing environment (viruses, hackers, and reliance on computers for all functions) a lack of proper maintenance can be a recipe for disaster. This article will examine some of the basics of hotel networking, some of the risks and opportunities, and the direction of networking technology. It is the second of a series, the first High Speed Internet Access: No Longer Optional is available on the web at www.HVSit.com.


Making the Connection


The previous article dealt with connecting to the Internet in great detail, and I will not repeat that information here. It is extremely important that the guest network and the staff network are two separate networks with as little opportunity for interaction as possible. Aside from the possibility of guest equipment or usage affecting hotel systems, security becomes more challenging if the network is shared. This is because network traffic going to and from a PC is actually going to and from every PC on the same physical network. You may wonder then, why your computer only sees data meant for it and not every site being accessed by everyone else on the network. It`s actually the network card in your computer that is ignoring the traffic on other computers connected to the network.


There are two devices that will keep most others from seeing your data traffic: a router and a switch. A router can be used to separate two networks (guest and staff) by routing traffic between the Internet and other data sources to one network exclusively. A switch is actually a network hub that acts as a mini-router and routes data only to the one port (computer) that requires it. Although both these devices, when properly configured, can make the network more secure, if both staff and guest computers are physically connected anywhere, there is a greater risk. In the end, the safest course is to have a reliable networking company install and maintain your network and have the guest Internet connection separate from the hotel`s administrative Internet connection (which can usually be a DSL or cable connection and even both).


If it`s not broken, make sure it stays that way


Networks, computers and data are like cars. Periodic maintenance, replacing worn parts and insurance can go a long way towards averting (and allowing quick recovery from) disaster. Too often servers and software are setup and installed, then left alone until something malfunctions. The practices of data backup and updating virus software may begin enthusiastically, but eventually become secondary, time-permitting activities. These policies (or the absence of policies) quickly lead to risk and inefficiency and in the worst cases, lost data, an inability to service guests, and potential for business failure. Like a car, what you can fix and maintain yourself depends a great deal on the knowledge and available time of your existing staff. Even the best self-trained mechanics are not likely to replace a head gasket however, and replacing your key server is the hotel equivalent. Clear policies need to be developed for the following activities:


  • Installing and maintaining virus protection software on all computers

  • Updating all hardware drivers for computers and network equipment

  • Backing up key data daily and ensuring that at least some backed up data is stored offsite

  • Installing all critical operating system software updates, including database software, as soon as it is released by the vendor.



The Rules


Some of those who thought HR rules were silly and obvious have learned the hard way that the cost of establishing, maintaining and enforcing personnel policies is small compared with a single employee abusing the unstated policy. For the same reasons, policies for data security, appropriate access and other aspects of system use are critical to preventing and responding to problems that arise. One defense that hackers have successfully used in the past is that they were not aware that they were not allowed to access a computer system, simply because there was no notice advising Authorized Access Only. You certainly want to consult with your HR, legal and perhaps risk management advisors, but establishing policies on things such as passwords, permissible data access, protection of guest data, and the hotel`s right to monitor employees is a must do item. This will make it easier for employees to comply and for the hotel to respond appropriately to any who don`t. By working with your software suppliers and interface vendors, you can ensure the security is established at an appropriate level and that third parties with access to your data (as well as some responsibility for protecting it) are also maintaining an equal emphasis on security.


Virtual Private Networking


One of the topics I will repeat and expand upon in this article is virtual private networking – or VPNs. A VPN is a simple ways of increasing security while using a public network whether it`s wireless, a standard wired network, or the Internet. The TCP/IP protocol and Ethernet standards pass data from many computers along the same network hardware. What keeps you from seeing other user`s data does not stop others from seeing your data, provided they have the right equipment and desire. What a VPN adds to the equation is simple encryption. The data being sent and received over the network is encoded so it`s not easily readable by anyone who does intercept it. Since your workstation or laptop is actually encrypting and decrypting the data it stays unreadable until it reaches its destination. Unfortunately, the VPN requires that your computer is talking to another computer enabled by a compatible VPN. This requires a more sophisticated server or router, but it is well within the capability of most networking companies. Another consideration with VPNs is the necessary processing power for encrypting and decrypting all data. For a workstation or laptop computer purchased over the last few years this will likely not be a problem; however, for a server that may have to manage VPN connections with many workstations or other computers, this may place too great a load on the system. Establishing a VPN for staff use in the hotel has other considerations that may make it impractical for a smaller property, but the added security is worth investigating.


You Talkin` to Me?


Networks should be thought of as communications media. Although their communications revolve primarily around data, they are little different than phones, televisions, radios and printed matter. Similar to other media, some communications are designed to go to anyone and everyone, while other communications are private. An appropriate analogy might be that e-mail is like a phone call and your web site is a combination of TV, radio and print. The equivalent of a knowledge library, conference call and closed circuit TV rolled into one can be likened to an intranet. An intranet is simply a browser-based (web site) application, restricted to authorized people. The access that each person or group has may be different, or it may be that anyone who is allowed on the intranet can access all of its content. An intranet is a wonderful communications tool that is only now beginning to make its effect felt in many progressive organizations. The intranet can provide basic employee information such as a directory, frequently requested forms and policies. It may have employee-specific data, such as schedules and secure intra-employee e-mail. It can even offer a full-blown EIS (executive information system) where managers have access to data, reports and analysis without having to page through monthly reports that are sometimes outdated as soon as they are circulated. Similar to an intranet, but including access (again, only for those authorized) for other organizations (such as suppliers or channel partners), is an extranet. Like an intranet, it is browser-based and accessible by authorized users from any Internet access point. Because both intranets and extranets use passwords for anything but very general (and hence, public) information, VPN access is advised.


Summing it Up


Guest high-speed Internet access and on-property networking are not simple technologies. There are many companies, however, who are well equipped to help you establish and maintain them both. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review cited the growth in purchases made over the Internet (so called B2C purchases by consumers from businesses) from $1.8 billion in 1997 to $70 billion in 2002. That phenomenal growth rate shows just how quickly the Internet has gone from geek playground to mainstream information and shopping medium. As you would expect, the optimal exploitation of these technologies has a long way to go to catch up with this adoption curve. Nonetheless, as Staples, Dell and the numerous online booking engines will attest to, failing to optimally deploy them will result in lost business if you`re lucky and no business if you`re not. While you may not need a new senior employee whose sole duty is to manage these aspects of your operation, a part-time college student or the controller who is a whiz with Excel is not the answer either. Technology crosses virtually every area of property operations, sales & marketing and management, and its necessity, power, and complexity are only increasing. And for those who have relied on tried and true, it`s time to recognize that there is no such thing when dealing with a phenomenon that grows at over 100% each year.


Chris Hartmann is Chief Technology Strategist for the HVS Technology Strategies division of HVS International. Chris has a computer science degree from Harvard as well as over 18 years experience as Chief Technology Officer at a large advertising agency in New York.

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