CIO Interview: Betfair's Michael Bischoff on making IT ready for Fifa World Cup

Michael Bischoff, the CIO of bookmaker Betfair, talks about the challenges in readying the IT for Fifa World Cup betting

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Betting on World Cup success

Today is a big day for online bookmaker Betfair – it is the first day of 20th Fifa World Cup. CIO Michael Bischoff is confident that Betfair's IT infrastructure is ready to provide betting and sportsbook services to even more customers than before.

"It is a big day but we are prepared," he tells Computer Weekly. "We have spent a lot of time engineering our IT architecture on an ongoing basis."

While the World Cup is important, so is Wimbledon, spring racing, Champions League, the FA Premiership, and that’s why the IT team constantly works to improve the infrastructure to deliver smooth services to its users, he says.

Betfair’s underlying IT infrastructure is ready for the games and the team is focusing more on how to translate its great back-end infrastructure to a smooth customer experience.

Engaging with social media

“This World Cup is more special because it is the first real social world cup,” says Bischoff. 

“Twitter has become a standard medium of communication for sporting fans while a game is on. It has changed how our customers talk to each other and how they engage with sports and betting exchanges. 

"We realised pretty early on that social is going to be big and we designed our IT infrastructure to help us introduce social into the play.” 

One element of this is Betfair's online tool Cash Out, that will allow users to lock in a profit or reduce exposure at the touch of a button without having to trade manually.

Flexibility in the IT infrastructure

Betfair's infrastructure has all the elements of a modern infrastructure – private cloud, public cloud, software as a service (SaaS), software-defined features and automation capabilities, and is mobile-ready. 

IT's aim is to give users what they want and we use any technology products that can help us provide that in the best possible way

Michael Bischoff, Betfair

"IT's aim is to give users – both internal and external – what they want," says Bischoff, “and we use any technology products that can help us provide that in the best possible way. All clouds are not created equal, so we believe in consuming services that serve our needs.”

As a result, Betfair has a hybrid and heterogeneous IT environment. It uses VMware vCloud suite for automation and orchestration and uses Amazon Web Services' (AWS) public cloud RedShift data warehouse service.

“VMware’s vCloud suite has helped us automate the layer of our infrastructure and give it to the development team to build apps on,” he says. 

Bischoff and his team have their IT priorities straight. “Aspects like network virtualisation and storage virtualisation are important, but not at this moment for us. Right now, we want to give our developers what they want, make our infrastructure’s interface friendly for the developers to write apps and integrate the teams,” he says.

Adopting a DevOps strategy

As a result, Betfair has become one of the adopters of DevOps strategy. “We see DevOps as the ability to have a simple, seamless integrated flow between a business idea and its production,” says Bischoff.

DevOps is an IT practice of merging the siloes between tasks performed by a company's application development team and those performed by the systems operations team. 

In traditional IT setup, the apps development team understands the business needs and writes code and the software program. The program is then passed to the testing and development team, which tests the apps in isolation. If the testing is successful, the development team then sends the program back to the operations team to be rolled out to users. 

But working in isolation leads to frustration and inefficiencies, as each team does not understand the limitations or challenges of the other.

“We are still on the journey with DevOps,” says Bischoff. “It is not about just having a vision. Much of it is about changing people and processes and business culture.”

The line between software and infrastructure is blurring fast and that’s the future, he insists. “Software is eating into the datacentre and the future is going to be all about automation."

Betfair uses VMware vCloud suite to abstract and automate its infrastructure layer for apps development, and uses AWS Redshift to get access into data and insights from customers to then find revenue-generating opportunities. “We are actually pretty pleased with Redshift and how it helps us in data analytics,” says Bischoff.

Aligning business and IT requirements

According to Bischoff, IT strategies must not only be about cost savings or even provisioning services quickly. “That’s a given. These bits are necessary but not sufficient today,” he says. “It has to be strongly aligned to business requirements,” he advises.

“Adopting SaaS has been a boon to us. It has freed up IT’s time to focus on core things that will generate revenue,” he says.

So what about shadow IT? Does Bischoff, like many other CIOs, feel threatened by it? “If you asked me whether I know the exact number of cloud services used by Betfair staff, I wouldn’t know. Shadow IT exists – it is real and we have to accept it and embrace it.

“I have 1,700 colleagues, all trying to innovate business aspects. I cannot constrain that. I cannot curate the internet. But at the same time, we are a heavily regulated player and have to comply with strict data and financial regulations,” he says.

According to Bischoff, an enterprise’s IT has to become a trusted partner and work with everyone in an organisation. “If the IT is going to say, ‘Right, you did this without asking us and we are going to lock you down,’ it won’t work.

“What will happen is, the next time some marketing employee uses their credit card to purchase a cloud service or download a free cloud service, they will not even tell you.

“A CIO should engage with other business colleagues and ask them how the IT team can help them with their favourite IT services. That’s why IT brokerage has become so much more important today,” he says.

Plan for the future

In the three years since he joined Betfair, Bischoff has made it his priority to adopt more SaaS and reduce datacentre complexities.

He did not inherit any mainframes or legacy infrastructure, but that doesn’t mean his journey has been without challenges. “In the past three years, mobile access of data by customers has become a big thing for us. Users are expecting IT delivery an awful lot quicker and we have had to enable that.” 

Software is eating into the datacentre and the future is going to be all about automation

Michael Bischoff, Betfair

The mobile world is moving so fast that the apps Betfair created 18-24 months ago are termed as “heritage apps” today. “That’s the challenge of the online business – innovate your enterprise infrastructure as fast as the consumer tech.”

Bischoff has created a resilient, agile, software-defined, automated, hybrid IT that can give customers the experience they want. But it has also helped the company save money on capital expenditure.

The gambling firm has reported an annual pre-tax profit of £61.1m, which is a major turnaround from last year’s losses of £49.4m. “It is the result of all our efforts and the vision of our new chief executive, Breon Corcoran. But our technology has had a big role to play too.”

Moving forward, Bischoff plans to use more cloud-based software, platform and infrastructure services. Betfair uses a few colocation datacentres that Bischoff wants to consolidate. “I anticipate that the datacentre square footage we own currently will go down as we use more SaaS and hybrid IT."

But right now, he wants to enjoy the World Cup and provide Betfair’s customers with a smooth online betting experience.

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