Technology you can bet on

It’s a Friday at the beginning of August. The football season is still a fortnight away, the Olympics a week off. Yet, the markets at bookmaker Paddy Power’s website are teeming with thousands of potential bets. I can get 9-4 on Gold Coast Titans scoring the first try against Melbourne Storm, or select any of the other 39 bets being offered by the Irish bookmaker on an innocuous rugby league game taking place on the other side of the world. At 10.35 in the morning.

Technology you can bet on

A little closer to home, I can pick from one of seven ways in which South Africa will lose their seventh wicket in the Second Test with England at Edgbaston. Or I can get 16-1 on Tenerife Sur winning Spanish volleyball’s Superliga. Hell, I can even get 7-2 on the first ball out of the Lottery machine on Saturday being blue. Betting on a lottery? If two flies were crawling down the window in my office, I’m fairly sure Paddy Power would offer me a price on which one reached the bottom first.

With thousands of open markets on events, ranging from those taking place right now to ones that might not happen for a decade or more (1,000-1 on U2’s Bono being the next Pope, for example), the amount of money changing hands is frightening. At peak times, bookmakers can be dealing with hundreds of bets per second, with prices being updated in a matter of seconds on live “in-running” events. A computing glitch could potentially cost a bookmaker hundreds of thousands of pounds, and the chief technology officer his job.

So what kind of computing infrastructure is required to keep a betting website running flawlessly? What kind of security threats are faced on a site where every visitor arrives wielding a credit card? We’ve spoken to the technology experts behind several of Britain’s leading bookmakers to reveal the hardware and software they’re building – and, indeed, gambling – their business on.

Grid drives rich man’s gambling

In the thick of the action

Like many other industries, broadband has completely transformed the betting business. If you were going to place a bet on a horse race or football match ten years ago, you’d more than likely have walked into a William Hill or Ladbrokes shop on your local high street and stuck your money on before kick-off. At its peak, there were around 15,000 betting shops in the UK. Now that figure is closer to 8,500, and those are largely propped up by the income generated from electronic casino games – glorified fruit machines with a fixed percentage payout and, inexplicably, no shortage of willing players.

Today’s sports punters do most of their betting online. In contrast to the yellowing pages of The Racing Post pinned up on betting shop walls, online bookmakers can display instantly updated odds on thousands of events from all over the world. And they can do it on your PC, your mobile phone, even your Sky television box. But such choice isn’t the killer attraction. The thrill of online gambling is to bet in-running, while the action is actually taking place: placing a fiver on the England striker who’s just come off the bench to score the next goal, or backing the golfer who’s just birdied the 12th to finish top of the leaderboard. “It matters more when there’s money on it” is the slogan of Sky’s online betting offshoot; and it’s not wrong.

It also matters more to bookmakers. Not only does it allow them to continue making money right through to the final whistle, but it increases the risk and demands on their website infrastructure. Prices have to be updated the instant a goal is scored or a putt is sunk, or else the bookmakers leave themselves open to sharp-witted punters exploiting their sluggishness. So how do bookmakers ensure their prices stay bang up-to-date?

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