Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Building the Software Defined Data Center

​How William Hill keeps bettors online and powers up ecommerce with software-defined infrastructure

To stay in front of the competition, an organisation needs to innovate. For betting agency William Hill, this meant implementing a software-defined data center (SDDC).

In 1934, a man called William Hill founded a postal and telephone betting service in the United Kingdom. Sixty-four years later, in 1998, the company launched on the internet, beginning its digital transformation with an online sportsbook.

By 2015, William Hill had amassed over 3 million active digital customers -- with 247,872 customers in Australia alone. The company's smartphone app has been downloaded over 2.5 million times since it launched in February 2012, the mobile platform accounting for 41 percent of William Hill's gaming net revenue.

William Hill Australia took off in 2013 with the acquisition of online gambling websites Sportingbet, Tom Waterhouse, and Centrebet; the company is currently in the process of merging these three entities into the William Hill brand.

With no bricks-and-mortar stores in Australia, William Hill is a 100 percent digital business, which according to Jonathan Nichol, infrastructure manager and architect for William Hill Australia, means the back end of the business is its gold.

Currently, William Hill operates on a software defined architecture -- one that Nichol said is vital to stay relevant in the online gambling marketplace.

This transition has been just over a year in the making, and was prompted by one of the worst situations an online betting agency can find itself in.

The race that stops the nation

On the first Tuesday in November every year, Flemington Racecourse hosts the Melbourne Cup, a horse race offering the richest prize in Australian sport, and known down under as the 'race that stops the nation'.

"We're always busy throughout the year, but the biggest time for us is Melbourne Cup," Nichol said.

"Melbourne Cup just gone we received just under 1.2 million bets, so on that day we had 1.5 million transactions -- a pretty big day for us -- and as you can imagine if we have any outages or any stability issues, punters will quite quickly go somewhere else."

In fact, at Melbourne Cup 2013, William Hill did have stability issues: its entire system shut down for six hours. Customers could not place a bet, so they went to William Hill's competitors.

William Hill is the definition of a company that needs to be always on.

Old-school infrastructure

Before William Hill went on its acquisition rampage in Australia, Nichol said the company employed an old-school modus operandi, involving big and bulky physical boxes and very little virtualization. Development teams spent the majority of their time being reactive to the organisation's mass of on-premises infrastructure and physical kit.

Previously the organisation would not even be aware there was an issue with its site until a customer phoned up to complain, Nichol said.

"It was a very old-school infrastructure environment and we had very low levels of high availability," he said. "The team pretty much just couldn't cope with the amount of kit they had to look after for the size of the team."

With resources being stretched to breaking point, Nichol said the staff was spending about 80 percent of its time doing "break-fixes" rather than adding value to the business.

"If they were adding new infrastructure or servers, someone would actually order a physical kit -- they'd then unbox it and rack it. That would take four to five weeks, and they then would spend half a day to a day installing it," he said.

"Nothing was ever automated and that's how they added capacity. Very, very slow in a non-agile way."

SDDC to the rescue

Enter virtualisation software firm Veeam. William Hill opted for Veeam's Availability Suite, which according to the Swiss company allows an organisation to modernise its data center in order to provision IT services faster, strengthen security and control, lower operational costs, and increase agility.

The first thing William Hill did in its SDDC transition was the delivery of infrastructure-as-a-service.

"Before we even looked into backup, we spent a long time virtualising, so the first thing we had to do was virtualise our whole environment. We spent a long time doing that, and we focused on delivering that first for our internal customers -- the development staff," Nichol said.

"We're now at a stage where we can deliver virtual machines very, very quickly to our internal developers to allow them to deliver new product and new applications -- and even for them to play with."

For Nichol, the benefits of having an SDDC are countless. Aside from the stability Veeam's 'always on' architecture has delivered, a virtualised back end has reduced William Hill's management time, complexity, and eradicated the siloed skillsets staff needed to have.

"IT is pretty much the backbone of the business, so reliability and stability is crucial. We've had to look at the complexity, the manageability, as well as downsizing the space and the number of physical servers [the team has] to look after."

"The Veeam product allowed us to automate that process and automate the backup process. So when the servers are being provisioned, depending on where the server is or what the SLA is for the data that's on that server, and depending on the uptime that's required on that server, a backup policy or an availability policy will be assigned automatically so we don't have to rely on anyone. It's really software defined -- we set policies and push them out and we don't need anyone manually integrating a thing."

According to Nichol, William Hill is now at the stage where its developers can build 30 servers in an afternoon, versus the weeks it used to take to deliver the same amount.

Additionally, instead of pulling the system down to deploy code, William Hill can update or patch its betting platform without any interruption for the end user.

Fast-paced innovation

Having an SDDC has spurred innovation, Nichol said, and allowed the development team to move quicker and push products out at lightening pace.

"We used to do updates to the websites externally once a month or once every two months, but now the guys can do daily updates -- the software defined architecture has enabled that," he said.

"If we want to release a new product and it needed new infrastructure or a new kit we're now in a position with the automation and the software defined components that we can stand these up for the developers in a much shorter time."

Changing the back end infrastructure into a more virtualised platform does allow for countless add-ons that would previously be placed in the 'too hard' basket. Freeing up staff to add more value to the business means William Hill can push out more frequent updates and releases now for its app and website, said Nichol.

"There's a lot more people focused on making that customer experience -- we're delivering over 50 updates to the system a week so our systems have to be 100 percent available and up and we have to be able to do that seamlessly"

"They can work quicker, there's time less spent on deployment. This is going to save them massive time," said Nichol.

In Australia, the sports gambling market's annual turnover is approximately AU$25-27 billion, with AU$15 billion generated via a digital channel. The Australian marketplace accounts for approximately 6 percent of the William Hill Global group revenue.

If William Hill was still on an archaic architecture, the company would be losing customers weekly, said Nichol.

"The competition has got so much more aggressive now. If you're digital and you're always on, customers are always expecting to have new features."

"With so many other online gambling companies out there, the thing that we're striving for here is to be fast -- everything has to be fast and to be easy from a customer perspective, and we're trying to do that on the internal infrastructure side as well."

Nichol concludes: "If you're 100 percent digital and you're not looking at how to deliver faster than your competitor, then you'll always be on the back foot."