New Intel for Woodbine races

Beyond their intrinsic value as a showcase for new technology implementation, case studies provide another service. They demonstrate the art-of the-possible, and in so doing enable businesses to vision how IT solutions might be applied in their own circumstance — and to what end. By comparing and contrasting their own organization’s needs with that of the study subject, the case study consumer can access the ‘how to’ as well as metrics that may be required to push past inertia to building the  business case for technology deployment.

The Woodbine Entertainment Group server upgrade study which follows below provides a good example of this. It outlines business need — to support a new version of the group’s online wagering system — as well as the requirement, which is table stakes in today’s market environment, to ensure performance reliability of systems, while delivering the infrastructure scale that can address peak activity levels. It also demonstrates the importance of managing service growth through the balance of software versioning with hardware upkeep. A state-of-the-art application that cannot be served up reliably remains just that. 

Ultimately, Woodbine and its implementation partner Whitecap Canada were attracted by the Dell/Intel platform for its ability to provide performance improvements. But deployment outcomes tell the most compelling story — "rock solid" server performance for betting systems at this year’s Kentucky Derby, with new processor capability helping the race group to manage a 73 percent increase (over three years) in concurrent betting. Worth a look....



Woodbine racetrack
Woodbine racetrack

Founded in 1881 as The Ontario Jockey Club, the now named Woodbine Entertainment Group (WEG) is one of the oldest and largest sports organizations in North America. The WEG owns and operates two Ontario racetracks: Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, and Mohawk Raceway, located 20 miles west in Campbellville, but also services wagering patrons through HorsePlayer Interactive (HPIBet), an Internet, telephone and television based distribution system first introduced in 1997 to provide telephone account wagering for racetracks across Canada, North America and the rest of the world.

Since 1997, the HPIBet system has undergone a number of iterations. In 2002, Woodbine engaged Toronto-based software developer and systems integrator Whitecap Canada Inc. to design, deploy, implement, maintain and support an online and mobile horse wagering system. Based on Microsoft’s .NET Microsoft Mobile Internet Toolkit technology, this platform was launched in 2004, before the introduction of smartphones. Built on HTML5, rather than a series of native device applications, a new platform-agnostic mobile edition with upgraded functionality was introduced in 2012, which also incorporated the rich content and capabilities of other HPI applications, providing access, for example, to detailed racing information, live video, account administration and funding. In this version, Whitecap also developed new means to display large volumes of real-time racing data in a small mobile portrait-oriented interface that can adapt to the display capabilities of mobile devices ranging from smartphones to tablets.

‘Wild success’ drives hardware update

Rob Carmichael - Woodbine Inel integrator
Rob Carmichael, CEO, Whitecap Canada Inc.

According to Whitecap founder and CEO, Robb Carmichael, the online system was huge step up from the company’s original phone betting system and "wildly successful — far more successful than Woodbine had anticipated it would be." Since introduction of online capabilities in 2004, he added, HPI demand had "grown exponentially to the point where more horsepower was required." To illustrate the additional pressure being placed on Woodbine’s betting network, Carmichael noted that membership in the online platform has increased 15 percent over the last three years, the total value of bets have increased by 14 percent and the number of daily transactions are up approximately 44 percent.

Beyond these growth totals, the racetrack business is subject to spikes in activity which occur around key events, such as the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, Preakness, Queen’s Plate and the Breeders Cup races — "days when everyone is trying to place a bet at the exact same time, usually just 30 seconds before the race starts," Carmichael explained. On Kentucky Derby day, there have been as many as 12,000 concurrent users hitting the ‘place bet button’ at the same second — reflecting a 73 percent increase in the number of concurrent users overall in the past few years on those special days. According to Carmichael, these bets must be transacted over the web securely and in near real time to make certain that each bet is placed. Bets have actual value — not only to the lucky bettor, but also to the track which draws revenue from each transaction. A key driver in Woodbine’s upgrade then, was the need to establish the availability of a high performance, scalable online betting system that could address peak demand without taxing server infrastructure.

Deploying Dell/Intel technology

To ensure the required "headroom," a decision was made to upgrade all of the WEG’s servers, which are hosted at a Q9 Networks facility. After researching the servers and processors currently available in the marketplace, Whitecap chose to upgrade from Intel Xeon 5600 series powered servers to Dell servers with integrated Xeon processor E5-2667 v2 technology. Whitecap had had "excellent success" with the Dell/Intel platform in both technology performance and Dell customer service and hence Carmichael was comfortable recommending this combination to Woodbine.

Whitecap devoted weeks to planning with wagering operations, a Woodbine division that is dedicated to all aspects of betting including television event broadcasting, online and telephone wagering services and off track betting, and with the Woodbine IT department to ensure success of the hardware upgrade. In terms of Whitecap staff, the project involved input from a dedicated senior software architect, a couple of dedicated senior and intermediate developers who also provide 24/7 support, as well as account management, a project manager, quality assurance staff, and creative resources who worked with Woodbine on interfaces as required, and a systems administration manager who oversees the Q9 environment.

Implementation of the server upgrade was scheduled for a time that betting activity was at its absolute minimum, a narrow (Tuesday at 3am!) window since HIPBet wagering goes on with affiliate racetracks across the world that are in different time zones. The process began with a database backup, followed by migration from the old system to the new, with both systems running in parallel until switch over — a process that consumed close to four hours and was executed by Whitecap and Q9 staff. According to Carmichael, "when we flipped the switch at seven am on Tuesday morning, everything worked perfectly. It was flawless, and we literally had no issues with the upgrade."

Productivity outcomes

According to Whitecap, the mobile version of HPIBet launched in 2012 has significantly increased use of the mobile app; unique visitors to Woodbine’s mobile site grew 1,200 percent y-o-y in Q1 of 2013. Over this same period, the user base for the legacy mobile app increased by 68 percent, due to the greater ease of use and convenience of the smartphone app.

To address peak demand, "we have major measurement systems in place for every significant race day," Carmichael explained, "that measure the number of users, the number of bets placed, the number of concurrent bets placed, etc. We look at the database and we look at the software and we determine the capacity of the servers at the times people are placing bets so we have extensive reporting to measure outcomes in terms of both hardware and software." The outcome has been "fantastic" Carmichael claimed, "exceeding our expectation from a performance perspective": a press release issued by Intel noted that at this year’s Kentucky Derby, the servers were "rock solid" in face of a three-year, 73 percent increase in the number of concurrent betters using the system. A good part of this performance boost may be attributed to Woodbine’s new processors: Intel Canada director Elaine Mah claims that as compared to the previous generation, the new Intel Xeon processor E5-2600 v2 delivers: up to 50 percent more performance, up to 45 percent greater Java performance and a potential improvement in energy efficiency of up to 45 percent.

Since deployment, the HPI site has experienced no security breaches, a critical requirement for Woodbine which transacts hundreds of millions of dollars in online wagers, and which is regulated by the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency, a federal body that ensures the integrity of pari-mutuel betting systems in Canada. Before granting Woodbine the right (the first in Canada) to conduct online wagering, the agency tested and endorsed the security provisions that Whitecap had made throughout software development. Carmichael views these measures and regulatory approval as evidence that reinforces  Whitecap’s reputation as "Internet builders that really understand security," while Q9, he added, has its own deserved reputation for the secure hosting of mission critical, high-performance applications.

Carmichael attributes success of the wagering project to the fact that Whitecap manages the entire Woodbine environment (including its other SharePoint websites), ensuring that software, processors, the servers and network are fully integrated and "work together seamlessly towards the goal of high-performance, high-security transaction processing." This end-to-end solution approach is typically reserved by Whitecap to clients for whom the company has developed a custom application.

Going forward, Whitecap has been awarded the contract to build the next generation of HIPBet, based on "responsive design" that will allow customers to wager on any device, ranging from smartphone to PC desktop. According to Carmichael, the server upgrade with new Intel technology is Woodbine "really readying itself for this next generation of HPIBet."