The success story of £5.4bn-per-year online gambling company Bet365 is nothing to do with luck and everything to do with technology. Kathleen Hall talks to CIO Martin Davies about how IT has played an integral role in its winning strategy.
There are similarities between online betting and the banking industry, in that both depend on the speed of electronic transactions processed in real-time to gain an edge over competitors. "The major difference, coming from some of our IT staff that have come from the banking sector, is that this is a much more dynamic and rapidly changing industry from an IT perspective," said Bet365 CIO Martin Davies.
The company has 1,700 staff based in Stoke-on-Trent, a website available in 17 languages and 6.5 million users across 240 countries. To achieve its exponential growth over the last 10 years, the company has firmly focused on growing its IT platforms, having started with just three web servers and 20 people to its current 17,000 servers and more than 320 people in IT.
The challenge to a modern computing environment such as Bet365 is to process more data as quickly as possible. "Being able to process information at a faster rate has meant we've expanded into new sports markets, such as tennis, where the speed of the game requires more responsive systems. That's why the speed of getting data changes out and making sure everything is synchronised across the platform is crucial."
Davies intends to re-architect systems for development over the next 10 years to exploit the latest technology enabling faster speeds. "The buzz is around systems that can now do millions of things at the same time. The challenge is to do that but to do it efficiently, as it's more difficult to write software to scale on more CPUs."
The company does use consultants when bringing in software developed by other companies, but at the core of its technology strategy is a strong emphasis on in-house expertise. "The attitude we take is very much that we like to control what we do. We don't outsource, because we believe it results in better levels of customer support if we are in control of everything ourselves."
It is not therefore not surprising that the company wants its own permanent 20-person R&D team. "The speed at which technology is developing means just addressing this project is like painting the Forth Bridge - as soon as it's complete we will have to start all over again.
"Bet365 releases new software on the platform on a daily basis. We need systems for scalability but in a way that doesn't complicate the jobs of the people who deliver to customers. So we need to architect something behind the scenes."
The team will investigate ways of achieving scale using complex systems by looking at companies, such as Amazon, that have achieved enormous scaling capabilities.
Attracting the right skills is one of the company's biggest challenges because it is based in Staffordshire and not in the city - a location which is not a natural draw for young talented individuals.
But Davies believes recruiting the right team of people, both internally and externally, won't be a problem. "We deal with that by trying to make the job as interesting as possible for people. The approach we take is to try and minimise the amount of things people don't enjoy doing and concentrate on the work they find rewarding rather than administrative tasks. And we also pay people well."
Systems for future growth
Despite the company's phenomenal growth, its architecture has not fundamentally changed, said Davies. "The underlying approach and way things are put together has remained constant."
Davies said the company is continuing to grow and scale its systems. "But at the same time we are asking what is going to happen, in 10 years, in terms of what our website will be doing with content delivery."
He is looking at how to take advantage of the major breakthrough in hardware architecture now available. "Around 10 years ago, high-end web servers contained two CPUs. Now high-end servers come with 80 CPUs. "Following the principle of Moore's law, that figure will increase to 160 in the next year.
Previously doubling the number of processors in a server would enable the code to run 50% faster. But this is no longer the case. Software needs to be developed to run on the new hardware. "We have to be writing code to be more concurrent, so it does more at the same time."
One of the most complex aspects of the company's systems is its in-play betting platform, which allows users to place bets in real time while the action unfolds. These systems use data feeds from news agencies such as the Press Association and makes use of proprietary modelling techniques for changing the odds on bets.
Another area of change will be the switch from traditional database architectures to distributed in-memory systems. "We won't be moving everything but will use more NOSQL databases. We can make significant savings by moving certain functions out to this type of technology. At the moment the use of database technology is all backed by storage systems, which comes with associated costs. In-memory technology will be more bang for our buck."
There will also be increased use of cloud computing. At the moment, the company's in-house developed betting platform is delivered using a VMware-based private cloud. But Davies is keen to expand the company's use of private cloud computing.
"We are already heavy users. Although we don't use the public cloud as it is harder to control performance. We will continue to scale that up as a core part of our architecture." Other ongoing improvement includes migrating its network to a 10Gbps backbone, based on the Cisco Nexus platform.
Once these systems have been deployed, does Davies predict a slow-down in developments at the company? "No! We've been saying every year since 2001 that things will go quieter after Christmas, but that has never happened yet."