Technology you can bet on
“It’s all driven from one large transactional database that holds all the pricing information and content that’s available,” John O’Donnell, chief technology officer at Paddy Power, told PC Pro. “The real technology key to delivering the service is when you look at the query caching and page caching times for the individual product. We don’t cache our betting in-running at all. Each time the page is refreshed, it’s refreshed entirely from source. It picks up the latest data and the latest information, including whether the market has been temporarily suspended or not. That’s key.”
Yet, even the smartest bookmaker with the smartest software can’t instantly update the dozens of available odds on every single football match. It can take a couple of seconds to react to the events onscreen, so such delays are built into the system. And it isn’t only human reaction times bookmakers have to account for. “Say the bookmaker’s having to watch it on Sky television or a broadcast from overseas, some of the broadcasts can be delayed by ten seconds,” said Peter Boyle, chief technology officer of Orbis, the company behind the betting software platform used by several of the country’s leading bookmakers, including Ladbrokes and Sky. “If they know the broadcast is delayed by five seconds, they might stick on a seven-second delay to just give them that reaction time.”
One thing is certain: the delay won’t be due to the software. “As soon as a bookmaker says bring them [prices] down, it will come down instantly,” said Boyle.
Spreading the risk
The thrill of live betting has given rise to forms of gambling that were virtually unheard of in the pre-broadband era. Spread betting – where punters buy or sell on sports events in a similar fashion to the way stock traders buy and sell shares – has exploded in the UK.
Spread-betting firms say their computer systems closely resemble those of the stock markets they mimic. “Spread betting is all about the event in-running – when the event is being played,” said Rob Cowie, head of technology at Sporting Index. “Our systems are more aligned to financial systems where things are going live all the time. We face the same challenges, and our product is very similar, in that we have an amount and we can either buy or sell that figure. Things happen very quickly in sporting events, and we have to reflect those changes quickly to our customers.”
But when both fixed-odds and spread-betting firms are offering dozens of different bets on every match – ranging from the minute in which the next goal will be scored, to the number of throw-ins – how do their human bookmakers ensure costly mistakes aren’t made in the heat of the moment?
The bookmakers were reluctant to talk about specific software tools for commercial reasons, but Paddy Power’s O’Donnell admits financial modelling is widely used. “There’s lots of technology involved,” he said. “You can give the traders lots of assistance but you can’t actually replace, in my mind, the fundamental skill or knowledge of the trader himself. But you can certainly make his job a hell of a lot easier by employing technology: getting good data feeds, good pictures, all that sort of stuff.”
Updating prices instantly is all well and good, but it’s wasted effort if the punters can’t see them. That means copious investment in the latest server hardware and sufficient bandwidth to ensure the website doesn’t collapse under the weight of traffic at peak times. “One of the things we have to do with our software is to make sure that it’s capable of handling a nice load most of the time, but then really peaking,” said Orbis’ Peter Boyle. “The football on a Saturday afternoon is a good example. Most of the day is really quiet and then the 15 minutes before 3pm, the volume will spike massively. We’ve probably gone up as high as 180 bets per second.