When Graeme McDowell tapped home his putt to seal a championship at the U.S. Open on Sunday (June 20), spectators who packed the stands and stood shoulder-to-shoulder around the green roared their approval. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the Open’s superstars, were humbled by the Pebble Beach course and its famously changeable weather. The little-known McDowell “survived,” as several commentators put it. But that doesn’t really give him enough credit. He played a smart, safe game that adapted well to course conditions.
(Photo credit: Lance Iversen, The Chronicle)
The same might be said about IBM’s technology operations, which in partnership with the U.S. Golf Association’s Digital Media team stood the test of a massive number of virtual fans visiting online and mobile U.S. Open sites. IBM and the USGA said that over four million visitors came to the U.S. Open’s Web site, about 8 percent more than last year. This was the first big year for the mobile site, which had nearly two million visits. A major attraction was the “Playtracker” application, which enabled users to fly over the course and get visualizations of how the course was playing through heat maps based on scoring feeds. You can imagine the potential for future data-driven visualizations based on historical data about courses, players, pin positions on the greens and much more.
IBM’s technology management of the U.S. Open site offered a case example of how virtualization and workload management are becoming the essential ingredients of scalability, availability and agility, certainly for consumer Web sites like the Open’s. The USGA is no stranger to IBM’s virtualization technology; IBM has a close services partnership with the USGA, which includes running a variety of cloud services for the Association from its data center in North Carolina. When I visited the trailer near the Pebble Beach course where Web site and scoring services technicians were holed up, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the simplicity of the dashboards that offered real-time views of workload performance on a virtual platform of servers located across the country.
As John J. Kent, IBM Program Manager for Worldwide Sponsorship Marketing explained, virtualization is critical to utilization efficiency, enabling IBM to combine several workloads onto a single platform. “Virtualization basically makes the distributed environment into a mainframe, which has had this virtualization capability forever,” he said. Kent heads up IBM’s technology partnerships with other events, including this week’s Wimbledon Championships tennis event. Kent said that tennis is actually the more data-rich game, with fans already interested in analysis of “all the potential data points – such as unforced errors and rally counts – that can help you understand the strength of a player’s performance.”
In distributed environments, scaling up has always meant adding more hardware; with virtualization and cloud computing, organizations can avoid the long “cap x” procurement process and simply request more of what they need, and it can be made available rapidly over the network. What’s key, then, is to understand and monitor their workloads so that they can be optimized as demand rises and falls; then, organizations don’t have to spend on procuring enough servers to match peak workloads – but otherwise let them sit idle.
The other performance throttle IBM needed during the Open was to regulate content flow. Bandwidth is now the chief bottleneck; the explosion of advanced mobile devices in particular has moved users ahead of what networking providers are able to offer. IBM and the USGA’s Digital Media team needed the ability to make dynamic decisions about regulating content flow. “We needed to understand content demand well,” said Kent. “We were able to slow scoring updates, for example, if we were reaching a threshold in demand for content access and live streaming.” Thus, workload intelligence is critical to managing unstructured content as much as it is for data.
The USGA needs to provide a rich virtual experience on mobile devices to capture a younger demographic, which is important not only for the continued success of professional golf but also for attracting advertising on its Web site. However, as fans grow more dependent on the experience delivered by their mobile devices, it will be interesting to see if the USGA responds to pressure to allow those who attend the Open to bring them, which they are currently prohibited from doing. While there are good reasons not to have onsite fans working their mobile devices and interrupting the lovely hush before a player takes a swing, I wonder if the USGA will have to bow to the inevitable. Otherwise, fans might prefer to stay outside, where they can enjoy a rich, virtual experience.
But in any case, from an IT perspective, the key to victory in the U.S. Open and similar high performance events is clear: Know the workload and optimize it through the virtualized infrastructure. The victorious Graeme McDowell set a good example.