Beating the odds

There cannot be many situations in which scruffily-dressed sole-traders, often operating in the rain, pose a genuine competitive threat to a multi-billion pound, state-owned business. But book-keeping is one.

The Tote, the UK’s state-run (although soon to be privatised) book-keeper, is the country’s fourth largest, with revenues of £2.2 billion in 2006. But the company’s large size brings its own problems.

Because the Tote extends its services to betting shops and race courses all over the world, the odds it offered punters were, until recently, two minutes out of date, by which time something could have changed the betting, such as the withdrawal of a horse from a race.

 “Complexity was the main issue, because we had to connect to everybody’s systems,” recalls Tote IT director Bob Broadbridge. “We weren’t as competitive as the bookies by the track.”

The company’s first step in eliminating that disadvantage has been to transform its underlying messaging architecture with the implementation of an enterprise service bus from Progress Software’s Sonic business.

The inspiration for that choice came from an unusual source. “We looked at what city traders’ were doing with their technology, because we regard ourselves as essentially trading in bets,” says system architect Andrew Ling. “We saw service-oriented architecture as a way to achieve the agility we needed.”

Having been lumbered with bespoke systems in the past, the company looked to buy as much infrastructure ‘off the shelve’ as was feasible. In an enterprise service bus, recalls Ling, the company saw the opportunity to achieve the control over messaging that it required through configuration of a stable product rather than bespoke development.

 “We wanted a product that was mature from a supplier that had a roadmap we could grow with,” Ling says. “Many of the other suppliers’

products were based on third-party technology, whereas Sonic has really pioneered the ESB by itself.”

The first service to benefit from this technology is the organisation’s ‘TotePool’ offering. This is different from conventional betting, in that all takings are placed into a central pot and then redistributed among the winners. The Tote, which takes a small cut of every bet placed, is the only UK organisation with a licence to offer pool betting.

An important piece of information that helps punters decide which horse they should back is what the company calls a ‘Will Pay’ – the amount they would theoretically receive if they placed one pound on a horse that went on to win. This figure is based on what money has already been bet on each horse, but due to the company’s legacy-based messaging infrastructure, the ‘Will Pays’ were typically two minutes old. A race-goer might place a bet expecting to receive thousands of pounds only to learn that the odds had narrowed even before the bet was placed.

“Most of the money is bet in the last five minutes,” explains Broadbridge. “Therefore the Will Pay must be up-to-date or the punters will lose trust in the Will Pay rates.”

By moving the integration functions that support the generation of Will Pays on to the enterprise service bus, the company has reduced the latency to 12 seconds. Now, the team is working on moving the actual dividend payment process on to the ESB, and it expects to achieve 50% reuse of the services it built for the Will Pay project in so doing.

Broadbridge believes that the agility that its adoption of a service-oriented architecture (SOA) will bring to the Tote will give the company competitive advantage – and not slow it down as some SOA early adopters have experienced. “To date, the business has wanted to introduce more ideas, but IT has been the bottleneck. Now we are introducing new bets for the first time in eight years.”

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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