Paddy Power is an international betting and gaming group headquartered in Dublin. With a strong online presence and 550 retail shops, the company employs 4.000 people at locations in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia and Bulgaria. Founded in 1988, Paddy Power’s focus on value, fairness and fun has proved extremely popular. The firm has seen an average annual growth of 25 per cent and net revenue of €6,1 billion. The online business accounts for over 80 per cent of profits.
Kevin Moore is Paddy Power’s Infrastructure Operations Manager and is responsible for the company’s IT infrastructure from its betting and gaming websites through to corporate email and business systems.
Paddy Power’s online business experiences dramatic spikes in activity, often around major sporting events. At the end of the recent Grand National, the number of concurrent online users leapt from 700 to over 76.000 in under 30 seconds. Having an IT infrastructure that can accommodate these spikes is critical to all businesses in the online gaming industry. A delay of just a few seconds when trying to place a bet can drive customers to a competitor’s site.
Paddy Power’s strong growth in a fiercely competitive market placed huge demands on their web infrastructure. The firm realised that its existing architecture was unsustainable in terms of technology, system management time and cost. In Kevin’s words, “We realised that we needed to scale the unscaleable and that would require a different approach. We had to overhaul our IT Infrastructure to enable long term growth.”
Paddy Power was already using Citrix NetScaler® for load-balancing on the paddypower.com website. However, as Kevin puts it, “We only made basic use of them. They were configured on day one and then left.”
Kevin and his team realised that they could make much more effective use of the technology by redeploying Citrix NetScaler at the application level and utilizing its more advanced features. Kevin explains, “By creating an app level NetScaler model, we let NetScaler do the clever stuff which allows us to change the scale of operations by a huge amount very quickly, turning on extra servers as required to meet spikes in demand.”
Previously, routine maintenance of servers was a labour-intensive task. It could take a full day to update nine application servers. Today, the firm has hundreds of app servers and the task would be unmanageable if done manually. NetScaler rotates the servers out automatically and Kevin’s team could process multiple patches in a day if necessary. As a result, skilled engineers can now spend their time on more valuable tasks.
Further, NetScaler dynamically removes any servers that appear to have issues for inspection, improving the site’s overall reliability and availability.
Kevin’s team also uses NetScaler to reduce the load on Paddy Power’s core database. NetScaler can interrogate the first 512 bytes in the header of incoming requests to determine their nature. While read/write requests are passed to the core database, these are in the minority. Read-only requests get routed to back-end databases, improving overall performance for users.
Paddy Power now uses NetScaler for “application sharding” to further improve overall reliability. The company has different environments for its Sports Book (betting on sports events) and other types of gaming. NetScaler is used to route incoming requests to appropriate groups of servers. Thus a user seeking casino.paddypower.com will be routed to the servers dedicated solely to the casino, poker uses another group, as does bingo and the company’s other offerings. In this way, any problems with one shard of activity do not affect other sections. The structure also allows Kevin’s team to take sections of the site down for maintenance without impacting the overall site. “NetScaler has given us a much more granular level of control,” explains Kevin. “We are trying to bring as much as possible to the edge of the network, away from the Apache stack. This is giving us much greater reliability to the point where ‘five 9s’ reliability is not just a pipe dream. We could lose a complete data-centre and customers wouldn’t even notice.”
The team has also used NetScaler’s Surge Protection™ and SureConnect™ functionalities to improve the customer experience. In contrast to many competitors and its own past experience, Paddy Power’s website stayed up and available for the entire Grand National event this year and last.
“We’ve managed to do some really clever things with NetScaler,” says Kevin. “The more you use it, the more possibilities you see. It’s not just a load balancing technology, but a whole lot more and its benefit to us is almost unquantifiable.” Looking to the future, Kevin and his team will continue to stretch the capabilities of their investment in NetScaler. Kevin wants to drive ever greater automation into their deployment and configuration processes. The company has recently purchased a further 16 NetScaler units to use in its corporate environment for email and collaboration applications.
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