Ladbrokes has set up a 'software defined data centre' environment in three months, reducing the time taken to deliver resources to developers from weeks or longer down to roughly 15 minutes.

Ahead of a planned £2.3bn merger with Gala Coral, Ladbrokes tasked its IT team with creating a more agile and efficient infrastructure platform to support its army of developers. This meant working to a tight schedule.

"The major success of the initiative was how quickly we managed to build it," said Jean Marie Lemoine, head of infrastructure at Ladbrokes, speaking at VMware's VMworld Europe conference in Barcelona.

"We knew at the time that the merger was coming and when you get a merger you know the business wants to do transformation, consolidation, perhaps rationalisation. We had to get this platform ready ahead of our merger, so it was a very tight timeframe to deliver it."

The company used VMware's vRealize tools to quickly put in place the building blocks of a hybrid cloud, with infrastructure as a service and some basic platform as a service capabilities.

"In three months we had the capability to build virtual servers with Puppet configuration for the operating system and some very basic package deployed," he said. "From there you start to get all the different requirements of the applications and you keep working on that."

IT as a 'bottleneck'

Ladbrokes has 4,000 bricks and mortar betting shops, but it also has a wide range of online services across mobile and desktop devices. It is a hugely IT-intensive organisation, relying on systems that are comparable to that of large banks.

"We deal with very large volume and scale," Lemoine said, adding that its infrastructure supports 860 digital price updates per second and 35 million transactions at peak times, such as the Grand National.

"Our backend systems are very similar to the financial industry," he explained. "We don't trade commodities or currencies, but sports. All of these events have priced odds that change constantly depending on the demand and various risk factors, like the financial industry."

A combination of legacy infrastructure, outdated approaches to management, and an ongoing data centre outsourcing arrangement created a bottleneck within Ladbrokes – and this prevented the team from releasing digital services quickly, which is vital in a highly competitive marketplace.

"To be successful any online business needs to innovate very quickly and IT is a key enabler for that," he said.

In the past it could take a long time to provision virtual servers to developers.

"We were very slow as an infrastructure team to deliver services to the rest of IT," Lemoine explained. "The best we could do was VMs in a week, and some in months. It was really bad."

Software defined data centre provides IaaS and PaaS capabilities

To resolve this, Ladbrokes created a private cloud using various VMware products as part of a software defined data centre, or 'SDDC', approach.

SDDC is VMware's marketing term - which has been picked up more widely in the technology industry - to describe the combination of virtualisation tools to abstract compute, networking and storage resources, with control through a management software layer.

For Ladbrokes this meant deploying vSphere server virtualisation and NSX for networks, though it decided against the VSAN storage software initially. It used the vRealize suite to manage its environment and provide functionality such as chargeback. 

Ladbrokes also uses vCloud Air for hybrid cloud capabilities, after deciding against a larger-scale move to the public cloud due to the time taken to modernise applications, along with other regulatory commitments.

"We can't just put everything in the cloud, it is going to take time for architectures to be ready and we are regulated," Lemoine said.

The cloud platform supports the provision of middleware to support front-end applications, mobile desktop, messaging bus, betting applications and customer management systems. 

As well as basic infrastructure services, such as provisioning Red Hat Enteprise Linux instances, it is used to create some basic platform as a service features to appeal to developers.

Lemoine said: "It is really a kind of PaaS. So customers have the choice between pure infrastructure - if they just want a server with Red Hat Linux and a bit of configuration - or it is an actual Apache server.

"You have the operating system, the Apache packages and libraries installed and configured. What the application team will do is deploy the code on top of that.

"We provide all the middleware but we do not deploy the actual code. That is done through the CI/CD process and managed by different teams."

Ladbrokes decided against a wider use of open source as the foundation of its cloud - deciding on a commercial deployment, partly due to skills - but is utilising a range of open source tools on top of its VMware environment. This includes Puppet, Apache Tomcat and Foreman, which is used for classification and configuring bare metal servers.

He added: "We run most of our production systems on Red Hat Enterprise - a commercially supported version of Linux. We do that because we are a PLC - a publicly listed company - so we need to give assurance to our stakeholders. That is the kind of thing we have to consider."

Lemoine said that the cloud creation process was shorter than expected for hybrid cloud deployments: "From the start of the procurement of the hardware to actually having value for the business - with basic capabilities - it took us three months.

"You often hear stories about people taking two years to build a hybrid cloud, but we did it very very quickly."

However, he noted that the project is ongoing, and features are continuously added: "What was available on day one was the capability to build new servers with the operating system, with configuration management of the operating system - very base infrastructure and networking."   

Ladbrokes plans to continue to improve its cloud platform, and Lemoine said that the company is investigating the use of full PaaS such as Red Hat's OpenShift and Pivotal's Cloud Foundry. It is also keen to move move applications onto containers in future, in order to further reduce compute provisioning, and is considering VMware's Photon software.

"This platform is not a waterfall project - you start and then you run it and it's over - it is something you have to continuously deliver," he said.