by Mark Chillingworth

Bwin CTO bets on OEM future

Jan 06, 2010
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Look at the brand names on the shirts of Premier League and European football teams over a period of years and you get a good idea of which commercial sectors are feeling healthy enough to shell out the exorbitant costs of football sponsorship. In the Premiership this year teams such as Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton sport online gaming sponsors to name just two and across Europe there are many more, including Bwin, which sponsors AC Milan and Real Madrid and was rumoured to be interested in closer ties with Newcastle United. Online gaming is a hot sector at the moment and growing at an exponential rate. It is also a sector that is rapidly maturing. Bwin is the largest player in Europe and its CTO Thomas Kiessling visited CIO UK to describe not only the technology that drives this purely online business, but also how technology is maturing Bwin. “In the gaming market there is no one larger,” Kiessling says of the Vienna Stock Exchange listed betting giant that in 2008 recorded gross gaming revenues of over 420 million Euros. “Our strategy is to be a house of games like poker, sports betting and casino games.” Bwin supports 22 language in 25 different countries. “At peak times we have 8000 poker tables open concurrently.” Kiessling has a team of 700 people in IT, almost half of the Bwin staff, the staff numbers having increased with the acquisitions of Gioco Digitale. “We are a technology company in that we develop our products ourselves. The technology is our differentiator,” he says. Kiessling’s team develops the games, the betting platforms and the transaction engines which supports 65 different payment methods. Gambling can attract people with questionable moral character and sceptics claim it is easier to “game the system” today than ever before, but the technology organisations like Bwin deploy keeps fraud largely at bay. Most fraud systems are in real time, Kiessling explains. “So if someone always tries to lose to the same person to launder money we are aware of it, and that creates data volumes that are very large.” Kiessling said considerable investment is also made into the game experience, but a huge factor for technology investment is the regulatory environment in which Bwin has to operate. Bwin has to comply with the gambling jurisdiction of each nation and ensure the regulatory demands are adhered to in real time. That means connecting to state databases to verify gambler’s personal data, and Kiessling said many of these databases are “often old”, causing extra technical demands for his team. “Italy opened up to online poker last year, so our Italian poker offering has to be only accessible to Italians. The architectural complexity of that is huge. Each region of Germany has different requirements for gaming.” Bwin uses a distributed architecture to simplify matters as much as possible. When Kiessling joined Bwin he examined at the business sectors really pushing the boundaries of online technology for inspiration. He looked at the e-commerce environment in retail and travel, online banking, existing gaming providers and the emerging model dubbed software-as-a-service (SaaS). “I tried to compare the complexity of their architectures,” he says and would take different cues from each. “Some need logistics in real time, like Amazon, so the end user experience does not have to be latest web experience. Banking has to be secure and with SaaS it’s about business processes and complex requirements when it comes to B2B capable multi-tenant systems. Travel has the largest transaction volumes. The gaming system has to have all these requirements.” Service-oriented architecture (SOA) allowed Bwin to satisfy all of these demands and utilise its existing infrastructure. “In the online poker arena there is no one else with a SOA-based platform, no-one else has taken the pain to do that,” he says. His experience as an enterprise architect during his career has given him a high regard for the discipline and the enthusiasm for the art of defining a strong architecture is clear and passionate.

Because Bwin has done the hard miles in SOA, it is now able to offer its users a more dynamic experience. Event-based programming has been introduced in the last financial quarter, triggered by real-time events inside a game, Kiessling explains: “Now every poker hand you play can be valuable. By matching requirements defined by us, combinations of cards can trigger our poker engine to reward players with bonuses for accomplishing hand-related tasks.  Using profiling, players can also get access to restricted services and games such as a poker strategy advisor or a special tournament. “ “These things become an unexpected entertainment for the client. Using profiling real time we do these things. We want them to play more and to lose less, because we want more volume with a lower rake of commission. It is a retail experience.” “These events offer moments of additional thrill layered on top of the poker experience. It makes every hand a little bit extra fun without demanding more money from players. The upside is the increase in volume, and the increase in pulse of course.  And that’s what poker is all about.“ It demonstrates how Kiessling’s assessment of a wide variety or markets has been integrated into online gaming. Gambling is often talked of in terms of big wins, but Kiessling talks about the relationship Bwin customers have with the firm as being akin to the one Sainsbury customers have via their Nectar cards. Bwin not only views online gamblers differently to many in the market, it views its place in this still very young industry as unique. “We see Bwin becoming a business service provider. Betting is a conventional business model, so the next step for Bwin is to create business services, which allow others to create their own community services like tournaments, we will provide a service and charge for these. I see our rivals potentially buying services from us. There are 300 online game providers in the world. The cost of developing the IT is so expensive that they will become brand managers,” he says of the market. In manufacturing there is precedence for the Bwin view. Almost all cars are now jointly developed by “rival” manufacturers, because, as Kiessling says, the technology is too costly to develop. Or else a wide range of brands come to live under one roof and share common technology as has been seen with Volkswagen owning Seat, Skoda, Audi, Bentley, Lamborghini and Bugatti or Ford owning the Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover brands until recently. The online gambling business is looking, at least for the moment, a fruitful arena to be in when you consider the 420 milllion Euros of gambling revenue that Bwin quote. To deliver technology to Bwin and future customers Kiessling has a team of 320 application developers based in Vienna, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Stockholm. Kiessling hasn’t set up a development centre in India yet,  like many CIOs, but the company is always considering options for its ability to scale upwards. Kiessling joined Bwin in 2006, “I couldn’t resist turning e-gaming into a major market and applying my experience,” he says. On arrival he had to review the poker offerings as at the time Bwin operated, which was big in the US, but under threat with legislation from George W. Bush’s presidency to ban online gaming. Kiessling introduced enterprise architecture and “made sure that the way the business looked at IT processes is the same way as IT looked at it, and the architects had to understand the business.” Kiessling was attracted to Bwin by the senior management team as well. “It was clear that we had a progressive vision that no one else had,” he says. He joined Bwin after four years at Amadeus, the travel IT systems provider. Kiessling is a techie at heart who has been able to move into sector where a passion for technology – and what it could do for your customers and therefore your business – is vital. A sensible punter would do well to bet that Bwin wins.