by Alice Dragoon

Rapid Deployment: IT at Cirque du Soleil

Nov 01, 20026 mins
IT Leadership

The midsummer sun beats down on an East Boston parking lot?a vast stretch of asphalt dotted with trailers and Porto Potties and surrounded by a chain-link fence. A small fleet of Bobcats darts about, pounding a giant circle of metal stakes into the expanse of tar. The ring foreshadows the huge blue and gold big top that will host Quidam, one of Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil’s five traveling shows that feature artists performing extraordinary physical feats along with music, costumes and characters that make ordinary circuses seem downright pedestrian.

While the big top will dominate the village of tents and trailers that will spring to life during the next eight days, the success of the Boston engagement of Quidam requires that a complex IT infrastructure spring to life as well. The man responsible for making that happen is Jean-Pierre Fontaine. Although the performers and most staffers get a week’s vacation between cities, the demands of rapidly moving IT from one city to the next sometimes mean Fontaine, North American tour computer and telecom coordinator, goes nearly three weeks without a day off. After tearing down the Detroit production at 10 p.m. on the previous Sunday and spending all day Monday driving to Boston, Fontaine was onsite by 8 a.m on Tuesday, getting a head start on the IT setup for the next show. Thanks to a recent overhaul of the IT infrastructure supporting Cirque’s tours, he can get the job done well within the eight-day setup window before the Boston premiere.

A Banker Joins the Circus

Danielle Savoie, Cirque du Soleil’s first-ever vice president of IT, perches on a folding chair in the IT trailer in Boston and reflects on the changes she’s instituted since joining the circus in April 2000. A review of tour IT (the systems that support the business operations) in 2001 revealed that each tour’s infrastructure was unique, she says, “like little different islands.” Savoie wanted to standardize and streamline the IT supporting the tours with the goal of simplifying and shortening the set-up and tear-down processes. “IT is the last thing to leave a site and the first to be in production at the next location,” she says. “It’s on the critical path to be ready for the premiere [in each city].”

Having managed projects that reengineered all branch processes and technology for Desjardins, the largest credit union in Quebec, Savoie was well acquainted with the challenges of efficiently supporting multiple remote operations. Cirque du Soleil offered the additional challenge of mobility. “In a standard company, the Pittsburgh branch is probably still going to be in Pittsburgh next year,” she says. “At Cirque, we have five tours on the road, and they move every two months.”

Savoie’s group standardized all servers and workstations on Windows 2000 with Active Directory and redesigned the IT road cases (the large, padded trunks on wheels that transport and protect the tour’s IT systems), switching to compact rack-mounted servers with standardized cable connections. Now Fontaine no longer has to unpack and reinstall the servers in each city. Administrative personnel just open their specially designed roadcase desks, plug in two cables, and can instantly begin using their computers and phones.

The Next Infrastructure Act

As part of her efforts to streamline tour IT, Savoie decided to make the leap to voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology and replace cumbersome copper cable with fiber-optic cable. The fiber-optic cable is much lighter (Fontaine can easily carry 1,000 feet with one hand) and can handle both voice and data communications, eliminating the need for separate lines. “Having two virtual LANs on the same physical LAN is much easier to manage,” says Fontaine. Using VoIP also puts more pressure on IT to make sure it offers 24/7 network availability, since all local box-office phone traffic now gets routed through the Cirque LAN. Switching to VoIP and a single cable for voice and data also reduces by 25 percent (eight hours) the time required to install the IT infrastructure on tour.

Savoie eventually plans to move to a wireless infrastructure to further simplify the process of setting up IT on the tour (not to mention eliminate the danger of cables getting cut by forklifts). She first wants to make sure the technology is mature and can support the business goal of adding two new tours to Cirque’s lineup in the next two years. She also wants to be sure that Cirque is ready for the change?and that she’s proven the value of moving to the standardized, fiber-optic-based infrastructure before she tries to justify the expense of a wireless environment. “The best way to manage change is to deliver,” she says. “Technology for technology’s sake is not my bag. It has to add value for the business.”

Delivering Business Value

The biggest challenge in changing the tour infrastructure, Savoie says, was to explain to Cirque executives the value of doing so. So far, the time savings gained from switching to VoIP and a single cable for voice and data is proof that standardizing tour IT has helped her trim tour support costs.

A business need?Cirque’s merchandisers had been clamoring for better data from the tours?is driving Savoie’s next tour IT project. She has been working closely with Cirque’s vice president of merchandising to choose new point of sale software that will eventually link the cash registers on tour to SAP at headquarters in Montreal. That integration will let Cirque’s merchandisers more effectively manage inventory (which includes funky hats, masks and CDs), identify best-sellers and fine-tune retail strategies. The new system will be rolled out at the three permanent shows and five touring shows during the next two years. Another piece of tour infrastructure?offering Internet access to the international cast and crew?boosts morale and gives tour personnel an easy way to stay in touch with family and friends.

Without a Net

Although Cirque never had any disasters with its old tour infrastructure, Savoie attributes that to pure luck. “It was not robust and not well configured, but it worked,” she says. While Cirque’s artists perform without a net, Savoie isn’t willing to do that in IT. Unlike the gravity-defying acts of Cirque’s shows, Savoie wants tour IT to be as easy as possible, very stable and simple to manage. “The show must go on perfectly,” she says.

On the premiere night of Quidam’s Boston engagement, the cast and crew?and the IT supporting them?are ready to put on a perfect show. As the capacity crowd of 2,600 fills the big top, the box-office trailer’s nine ticket windows function efficiently, and the 28 cash registers hum as workers ring up giant pretzels and feather-festooned hats. The small village that has sprung up in the East Boston parking lot is no island but a well-connected branch of the worldwide enterprise that is Cirque du Soleil. The lights dim. The ringmaster appears, redistributing popcorn among unsuspecting audience members and carrying a latecomer to her seat. The show has begun.