by Rhys Lewis

Welsh rugby’s virtualised power play

Oct 13, 201110 mins
Cloud ComputingData CenterIT Leadership

The coaches of Wales’s rugby union team left nothing to chance when it came to preparing the squad for the World Cup currently under way in New Zealand. Players have been exposed to temperatures of -120° in deep freeze chambers at a cryogenic centre in Poland, and spent much of the summer honing their skills on high-tech artificial pitches at a £4m Centre of Excellence some 12 miles west of Cardiff.

Just as the coaching staff is continually searching for the cutting edge that they hope will ensure victory on the pitch, so the sport’s governing body, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU), is investing in technology that will keep its operations running smoothly off it, helping to develop the game and its players at all levels while making the most out of its prized asset, the Millennium Stadium.

The last year has been a busy one for WRU group IT manager Craig Phillips, who has kicked off several projects aimed at bringing the Union’s technology facilities up to date. Paramount among these was a switch from a traditional host-and-server setup to a virtualised private cloud environment running Microsoft’s Hyper-V Server on Dell PowerEdge servers and EqualLogicstorage solutions.

Ten to three

Working with local solutions provider Certus IT, Phillips’ team consolidated 10 servers into just three virtual hosts, giving the WRU a flexible infrastructure, high availability, remote support and simplified management at a vastly reduced cost. “The savings were a long-term aim of the virtualisation,” says Phillips. “We looked at VMware as well as the Microsoft solution and thought Hyper-V would be the best fit for the business. We run a lot of Microsoft applications and we could rest assured that Microsoft would continue to develop and support the solution.”

Transparency was an important factor of the migration to the virtual environment, and Phillips admits that the impact was so slight that only he and his finance director were aware of the transition. The FD, Steve Phillips, will no doubt also be happy with the savings that the private cloud brings.

“Buying a new server used to cost £7000,” says Phillips. “Now, we can provision a new system for about a quarter of that, and a lot more quickly. You used to have to get quotes in for the hardware and specify a server configuration, but now you only have to worry about getting the licences and you can provision a server very quickly – the lead time has gone from weeks to days. Certus IT can even link in to us remotely, even without us being on site.”

Life at a sporting body is rarely a Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 routine, and with matches being played on Saturdays, Sundays and weekday evenings, and the national team travelling around the world, Phillips and his team of two are constantly on call. The high availability of the new setup, he says, has made life much easier.

“Downtime is just not an option. When the national squad is away in South Africa or somewhere they expect their BlackBerry devices to work 24/7, and when we start a ticketing run for the Six Nations championship we’ve got to be confident that we can get the tickets out on time.

“I dread it when my BlackBerry goes on the weekend. We are a very small team but with the virtual environment we’re not looking after all the hardware or worrying about warranty and maintenance.

“We’re saving 70 per cent on power too, as by slimming down our hardware the air conditioning in the server room isn’t working as hard as it used to.”

New systems and software upgrades can be tested more easily and thoroughly using the private cloud, and before deciding on his final virtual solution, Phillips could see the impact – or lack of it – of a host going down by running through a variety of virtual scenarios.

Alongside the virtual environment, a private dedicated 100Mbps link between the WRU’s stadium headquarters and the Centre of Excellence in the Vale of Glamorgan gives the national squad’s analysts high-speed access to match videos on demand, and turns the single host in the Centre into a secure backup for disaster recovery and business continuity purposes. The link, which is reinforced by a line-of-sight to the offices of ISP Connect Cardiff, also enables Phillips to give both the stadium and Vale sites’ voice-over-IP phones, and the Union’s 200 employees can access email, financial and other applications by dialling into a virtual private network.

“For business continuity we can light up all the servers in the Vale and get staff operational as quickly as possible from that site,” Phillips explains.

The final piece of this virtualised puzzle is the Dell EqualLogic iSCSI SAN array which allows Phillips to share disk space between the PowerEdge servers as and when required.

“We realised we’d never had any kind of SAN, just servers with disk space. But now we can allocate disk resource very quickly to whichever servers we build within the virtual setup,” says Phillips.

“The SAN enables us to take advantage of the benefits of pooled storage within the virtual world, so the stadium is able to get much higher utilisation rates from its storage, its processor and its memory investment than it could when these things were sandboxed into separate physical servers.”

Vision on

The SAN comes into its own matchdays, when the images captured by the WRU’s 200 high-definition pitchside cameras can produce 120GB of video data. Much of this is sifted through by the squad’s analysts for their post-match reviews, or shared with experts from other unions in return for their video. But on matchdays it can reap instant rewards, as the Welsh coaches can review on-field action and send edited clips via a videoLAN to screens in the changing room for the half-time pep talk, or straight down to pitchside laptops from where colleagues can relay strategic messages to the players.

The video system will also prove its worth when linked to the 450 high-definition IPTV screens dotted around the 74,500-seat stadium, its 130 hospitality boxes and two 90m2 Daktronic screens at either end of the playing field. The system – a £2.7m Cisco StadiumVision installation – will let sponsors display their own content in hospitality boxes, and the WRU also hopes that by showing exclusive content before and after games, spectators will be encouraged to arrival early, go home late and spend more time and money at the stadium’s food and drink concessions.

“The trouble with the stadium is that it’s right in the middle of Cardiff, so we’re battling against all the pubs on event day,” says Phillips.

“People have always waited until the last minute before coming to the game because they’re comfortable in the pub, but using the StadiumVision platform we could create our own rugby programme showing exclusive clips from the team bus or changing rooms as well as post?match interviews. If only five or 10 per cent of spectators stayed behind a little longer it would make a huge difference.”

Bearing in mind that 63,000 thirsty Welsh fans drank 77,184 pints of beer during one match in 2008, and that the venue hosts over 50 events a year including music concerts, motor sport, football and rugby, the temptation to tap into this particular lucrative stream must be overwhelming.

The Millennium Stadium opened in 1999, before the proliferation of mobile phones and long before the members of the press – who can number 300 for the busiest events – required wifi access. BT offers its Openzone wifi connection in the media areas alongside the Union’s own free service which plugs into the 100Mbit link, but Phillips is currently looking into boosting this facility and improving mobile phone coverage in the notoriously signal-poor stadium.

“Our communications department is keen for the whole stadium to have wifi, mainly for the media, but the cost of making the stadium a hotspot is astronomical – we’ve had site surveys, and once you get to 400 access points you do wonder if it’s worth it,” admits Phillips, who compares notes with other UK stadium IT managers at twice-yearly networking events.

“But for the next 12 months we’re very much focused on improving mobile phone signal and pitchside wifi coverage for press and photographers, and also on improving facilities within the media area.”

Golden opportunity

Those improvements could come courtesy of the Olympic Games, which kick off in Cardiff next July with a women’s football match a full 48 hours before the opening ceremony in London. The Olympic organisers are determined to offer the best possible facilities to visiting media, and that could mean an upgrade to Phillips’ current setup, which would be left behind at the Millennium Stadium long after the Olympic flame is extinguished.

Of course, Welsh rugby extends far beyond the stadium’s environs, and the Union’s regional development officers and member clubs all – in varying degrees – benefit from the improved technologies back at the WRU’s Westgate Street HQ.

Like all the Union’s employees its seven regional offices plug into the private cloud to access email and applications, but when it came to keeping in touch with the WRU’s 293 member clubs, Phillips opted for a public cloud solution with a web interface, through which club officials and referees can submit match statistics and disciplinary matters as well as club audits which go a long way to determining how much funding the members get from the Union.

“The clubs tell us what they’re doing, how many teams they’re running and their coaching standards. If they play more fixtures, they get more points and more money. The adminstrators in the clubs are more or less retired so you’re introducing them to new technology. We’ve got 78 per cent of clubs on board, but because it’s time for funding, a lot are having to find someone younger to do the technology. Within five years I’m expecting the whole dynamic of clubs to change,” says Phillips.

“I enjoy the work with the clubs, trying to get them to adopt new technology is fantastic. The goal is to try and get wireless broadband in every rugby club in Wales. We’ve done trials and the clubs that took part have seen an increase in business, as they can attract local businesses to the clubhouse to use the wifi connection as well as bringing in people from the community.”

And for one club, the technological innovation doesn’t end there. “One club wants to start a pre-paid card payment scheme so you don’t have to take any money to the club!” says Phillips.

Phillips joined the WRU’s IT team soon after graduating from the University of Glamorgan in 1999, landing what must be a dream first job for any passionate Welshman. Twelve years on and as head of the technology team, he has seen at first hand how the role of the IT professional has changed from being a service desk reactionary to a real business leader.

“We’ve moved from maintaining the infrastructure to developing it to meet the rapidly changing business needs that are being driven by the commercial parts of the organisation,” he explains.

“Most of my time is spent dealing with business managers, getting involved in strategy and the commercial side of the project work.

“It’s about us looking at all aspects of the business and ensuring that we’ve got the environment to cater for it.

“I answer to my finance director. He’s keen on moving the company forward technologically as well as commercially, and anything that we really want to invest in, if I put a good case forward, most of the time it gets signed off.”