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Betfair shares the ‘secret sauce’ of hybrid cloud

Kenny MacIver Profile picture for user kmaciver March 11, 2014
The international gaming giant says an intense focus on automation and orchestration — undepinned by virtual hybrid cloud technology from VMware — has “finally” enabled the seamlessly sharing of workloads across private and public clouds.

Betfair bets on hybrid cloud
It takes a bold company to embark on a technology strategy with the assumption that the innovation it needs to complete that journey will emerge at the opportune moment. But Betfair, after all, makes its living by understanding risk.

The £387 million ($643m) international online gaming group, with gambling licenses that stretch across Europe, the US and Australia, and a million customers worldwide, made the judgment around the turn of 2011/12 on how fast hybrid cloud technology would mature — betting on the complete stack of VMware technology and, in this case, its vCHS hybrid cloud service. That was a good call, at least according to its CIO Michael Bischoff, and as a result, he says — somewhat triumphantly: “I’m finally getting to the point where I will actually never have to buy another server again.”

Exaggerated as that might be, hybrid cloud – that ‘Holy Grail’ of effortlessly spreading workloads across both private and public clouds to meet dynamic demand — has been one of the most over-hyped promises of the early years of the cloud technology era. But it remains a compelling prospect, nonetheless.

“We started on that journey because I was grumpy about having to buy any more tin,” Bischoff quips. “The point is we didn’t know at the time but we were sure something like this world would arrive eventually. We’d always anticipated that we’d need to run workloads in our own and in other people’s data centers.”

Compelling economics

Of course, there is a lot more than irritation at wasteful levels of hardware utilization behind Betfair’s hunger for genuine hybrid cloud capability. For one, ignoring public cloud economics is simply not an option, Bischoff argues. “The benchmark that I am set in terms of providing infrastructure to my organization is the simple one that we all know:  cost per server per hour. The reality is I have to guess those economics, but I have to do so at the same time as being able to control, manage, govern, operate and secure the infrastructure that we provide.” And, in at least some cases, his organization is keen for someone else to carry that load — and to make the extension into that lower-cost, public cloud environment in a seamless fashion.

Above all, though, controlling that blend of public and private is the key to making this a reality, he argues.

“Rather than tin and wires and [concerns about] the physical locations of servers, the cloud journey we have taken over the last 18-24 months has been to obsess about orchestration and automation [of workloads]. It is the secret sauce to making all of this stuff work, an absolute pre-requisite to being able to exploit the capabilities of any hybrid cloud service.”

There are some pretty concrete reasons why that takes precedence. “For one, we need to have the ability to control those workloads because, like many industries, we are heavily regulated. And we need to be able to support our regulator’s needs for an understanding of where our data sits and where our workloads are operating from.”

Michael Bischoff, CIO of Betfair
Michael Bischoff, CIO of Betfair: “We want people to be actively disinterested in where the underlying computing comes from.”

Robustness is another fundamental. “Our customers tell us the most important thing they worry about — other that the betting odds — is the reliability of our site, the ability for them to place a bet and to cash out a bet whenever they want to. And for us that means the ability to provide both infrastructure at scale and to get at the economies of public cloud. The key element as far as we are concerned is that we can now [solve] the operating cost conundrum [and enjoy] the lack of capital investment — in tin and wire, tools, processes, training, and so on.

Making all this work is not just about buying in new technology  – Bischoff says he did not even know two years ago that VMware would be launching a hybrid cloud service, but signed up as a beta-customer for vCHS when he became convinced it was heading in the right direction. “[Our focus] is actually not a lot on the technology. It has more to do with aligning the organization, the culture and the process. And in our experience that was pretty tough, but it’s what you have to think about.”

That said, turning on a hybrid service seemed to be less painful. To give a sense of what the switch over was like, he highlights how once Betfair had the infrastructure in place and network competency established, it took a mere 30 minutes for the company to have the ability to start provisioning workloads through its orchestration platform onto the vCHS private cloud. Betfair’s initial deployment has been for application development and testing but Bischoff is now talking about exploiting the capability further, “excited about the economies of scale that I think we’ll be able to get.”

Data center as an API

By abstracting the management of workloads from data centers to a software layer, VMware and others like to talk about the notion of software-defined data centers. Bischoff says he buys into that, but puts it slightly differently. “We talk about the ability to address data centers as APIs, for our developers to be able to address and expose capabilities at will. And we see a world where there will be clouds — plural not singular — that will have different capabilities. One of those dimensions may be regulatory: we are regulated in many jurisdictions around the world, and each of those constitutes its own special requirements. We see our ability to exploit private, public and hybrid cloud to offer these kinds of services geographically as very important.”

As that suggests, the rationale behind all of this is an attempt to provide a completely seamless and invisible service to the organization: “I want people to be actively disinterested in where the underlying computing comes from — other than those in charge of application performance monitoring, our audit and compliance group or the industry’s regulators who might care where the workloads are running.”

Performance and process

With workloads switching between public and private environments, there will always be concerns about performance, but Bischoff so far has had few: “In terms of the performance across hybrid environments, what we were able to do was run equivalent orchestration events for the provisioning of infrastructure — and these are complex infrastructures that are not just servers, but networking, storage compute and applications. We run those in parallel across our own internal private cloud as well as across the vCHS platform and have seen equivalent performance.”

But this is hardly a wholesale switch to public cloud. Rather, what vCHS allows Betfair to do is more actively and confidently exploit public clouds. “It doesn’t mean we weren’t extracting any value [before]. But now we can extract the maximize value from public clouds,” says Bischoff.

He emphasizes that such commitment is not all — or even primarily — about financial efficiency: “We have made significant investments but those shouldn’t be confused with cash: the effort around our capability for orchestration and automation [was much more important]. If I had to do this again I’d spend 99% more time aligning people and processes and 90% less time worrying about the technology. Because the technology is increasingly the easy part.”

He even sees that newfound agility across public and private cloud services as something of an antidote to so-called shadow IT.

“Today, it’s very easy for a [business] consumer to get their credit card out and buy a public cloud service. But the day after is when the questions start — where exactly is my data, who controls access to it, and so on? We have got to get ahead of that [kind of behavior] and give them the service that prevents them from feeling they have to make that wrong first step.”

The secret, he says, therefore, is convincing the business that the IT resources being provided are attuned to its needs — wherever the service is coming from.

Featured image: Betfair

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