Mongkok rising

Von Stefan Hammond

Hong Kong?s Mongkok district is known for high-energy street markets, exotic fish emporia and shops peddling everything from the latest electronic gadgets to dodgy DVDs. But it?s not known for five-star hotels offering the latest in both wired and wireless technological innovation.

Now that?s changed.

The newly opened five-star Langham Place Hotel at 555 Shanghai Street in the heart of Mongkok stakes its claim as the most technologically advanced hotel in the region. ?We have a voice and data Wi-Fi bubble throughout,? said Dan Tse, information technology manager for the 42-story five-star hotel. ?As part of our infrastructure, we have over 500 access points -- including guest and staff lifts -- for continuous WiFi coverage.?

Migrating from Linux Mail

Tse said that the Langham Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui (then known as the Great Eagle Hotel) deployed Linux Mail in 1999 -- a path the firm didn?t want to follow for the newer Mongkok property. Langham Place Hotel uses Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 and Windows Server 2003. ?Linux mail only provided simple e-mail and calendaring functions,? said Tse. ?Maintaining appropriate security was tough -- especially as we were being inundated with junk mail -- and this platform had limited choices of security related products for our needs.?

Tse added that while the legacy Linux system required third-party software to deal with the junk mail issue, the Microsoft products currently being used at Langham Place have built-in spam filters.

Scalability was also a concern. ?Our hotel group is growing,? said Tse, pointing out that Great Eagle Holdings Ltd (the Hong Kong-based company which owns Langham Place) also operates hotels in Auckland, Boston, London, Melbourne, and Toronto. ?We seek to integrate our IT connectivity on a global basis. This is essential for our future growth and worldwide deployment.? Tse noted that he and his team were satisfied with Microsoft?s ability to ?work with us in creating a comprehensive wireless communications environment.?

Morphing Mongkok

Langham Place Hotel is Kowloon?s first five-star hotel in a decade. The project involved the annexation of four city blocks in one of the world?s more densely populated neighborhoods and required 15 years to complete. Its completion has also driven up values of nearby properties. An attached office tower and massive shopping mall are scheduled to open before year end.

Tse said that the hotel deployed an integrated communications network from PCCW that uses a single IP-based system for voice, data and video communications. Cisco?s AAVID (Architecture for Voice, Video and Integrated Data) converges with Avaya?s LazerSpeed structured cabling system to effect the deployment. A total of 4000 network connections and 1500 IP phones are used, connected via a backbone built with over 5km of fiber optic and capable of handling almost 700G bytes of simultaneous data-transfer, according to Tse.

Part of the Microsoft appeal was its unified messaging approach?a strategy that encompasses full wireless access, said Tse. ?With Exchange Server 2003 we?ve established a unified messaging system that provides guests and staff with access to a single Outlook inbox containing email, voicemail, fax and page messages,? said Tse, explaining that faxes, telephone messages and emails are displayed onscreen while voicemails can be listened to on PCs. ?All aspects of communication are now centralized into one central collection point,? he added.

Integrating VoIP

With the decision to use a single IP-based system for data and voice, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) functionality is key. The hotel uses wired Cisco IP phones in guest rooms that offer various multimedia functions (including news and stock quotes, airline information, SMS capabilities and even streaming Net radio) in multiple languages. In addition, each executive-level room has a wireless IP phone for the guest to use anywhere in the hotel.

One interesting synthesis of VoIP and the Web is found in the hotel?s ?Click-to-Talk? service, provided by vendor CrystalVoice. As demonstrated by Tse on a wireless HP tablet PC, a mouse-click on the Langham Place website takes the visitor directly via VoIP link to the hotel?s SMART Center, where communication continues via the computer?s microphone/speakers or over a headset, depending on the visitor?s hardware configuration -- and the sound quality is excellent.

Installation and system integration

Langham chose Kenfil to do the installation. ?We?ve had good experiences with Kenfil,? said Tse, adding that the Hong Kong-based IT firm had successfully worked on Langham installations in the past.

A similar decision-making process was employed in choosing system integrator United Technologies (International) Ltd. ?They [United Technologies] provided IT support for our Eaton Hotel facility,? said Tse.

Bottom-line benefits

Tse stressed that deployment of an IP-based scheme enveloping the hotel in a seamless bubble of wired and wireless communication also brought some welcome cost-benefits. ?We were able to effect a 25 percent reduction in technical support staff,? said Tse, comparing staffing requirements with the existing system against requirements for the earlier Linux system.