Hopping islands for high aces

A few years ago, Chris Moneymaker signed in to an online poker room for US$39 at pokerstars.com. The 27-year-old accountant from Spring Hill, Tenn., eventually went on to win a US$10,000 buy-in to the 2003 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. And the rest is pop culture history.

Inspired by the 1998 John Dahl movie Rounders, Moneymaker (his real name, not a moniker) survived the many flops, turns and rivers of No-Limit Texas Hold ‘Em to win the main event of the World Series – worth a cool US$2.5 million.

He’s since appeared on David Letterman’s Late Show and Sirius Satellite’s Playboy Radio; he’s released his autobiography, Moneymaker: How an Amateur Poker Player Turned $40 into $2.5 Million at the World Series of Poker; he’s launched his own online gaming business at moneymakergaming.com; and, yes, he’s quit his number-crunching job to become a professional player.

Moneymaker’s 2003 win earned him a reputation as the Godfather of Poker and helped launch an online poker revolution that became a billion-dollar industry.

Among the current players is CryptoLogic Inc., a Toronto-based developer of online gaming software, with reported record revenue of US$25.1 million and earnings of $5.1 million for the fourth quarter of 2005. Year-end revenue topped $86.3 million and the company, which reported no debt, raked in $20.5 million in earnings.

CryptoLogic licenses its gambling software through the firm’s wholly-owned subsidiary, WagerLogic Ltd., to gaming companies that operate from islands like Antigua in the Caribbean and Malta in the Mediterranean, where online gambling is legal. Among WagerLogic’s premier licensees are William Hill and The Ritz Club London.

Behind the scenes of software development and product licensing, CryptoLogic has set up a monster network that simulates the massive multiplayer online gaming environment. Thousands of players typically hit a game operator’s central servers at the same time. CryptoLogic’s network ensures the software passes user-acceptance testing.

The company also works closely with its licensees around the world, providing networking hardware and services that address traffic management and security issues, says Jasba Simpson, CryptoLogic’s director of enterprise architecture.

Rich tapestry

Licensees’ data centres around the world have been interconnected to form a global network and traffic hops from island to island to whichever servers are available. Networking technologies like content switching, load balancing, traffic shaping and acceleration have been built into the network. “We’ve created this tapestry of opportunities to reach our players,” says Simpson.

CryptoLogic’s IT roadmap is intricately aligned with its business goals and Simpson says the network forms a key area for CryptoLogic to succeed as a company. The business model is based on an enterprise architecture that’s comprised of infrastructure and application architects, as well as business and information architects.

“Unless we have a good understanding of the business strategies, in a language and in a documented way that we can refer to,” says Simpson, “it would be very difficult for us to select what kind of networking technology to build in the future, for example.”

Business and information architects document the company’s business strategy and then break it down to the implications, as to what kind of technology architectures will have to be developed to support the business, says Simpson.

“We need to understand, for example, if the company is planning to license its software to 10 new [gaming operators] next year, then that would imply a certain growth that we need to analyze,” he says. “Then we can go back to the networking side and say, over the next two years we expect a 10-times growth in network usage, and we need to deal with that. What are the implications of that, and are our data centres capable?”

The key driver for poker is liquidity, says Simpson, and advanced networking technology like content switching and traffic acceleration is creating that liquidity.

Room for more

He says the more people you have playing in one place, the more likely the correct room is available with the right number of people, for the correct amounts of money you want to bet, and for the type of game you want to play. “And that’s why the shared-room concept is employed.”

Poker is a unified room, says Simpson. In the back-end, all the players meet in the same place. There can be 10,000 players online at peak, and that puts “a fair bit of strain” on the network. “Players are coming in from all around the world, through all our different licensees,” he says. “That means we have to tie everyone’s software, to bring all the information and share it. Ultimately all their information, regarding their [game play] activity, is shared into one consolidated form in real-time.”

This aspect is essential to make online game play interactive. The interconnected poker room brings together 10 players around a virtual online table, where they can place bets and raise each other as they would in real life.

CryptoLogic provides its licensees with recommended configurations for active rerouting and passing of packets between data centres, says Simpson. Technologies like traffic shaping and load balancing help to improve network connectivity, which means the data that represents players’ card actions doesn’t get lost when a data centre goes down.

CryptoLogic’s network architects learn what topology and configurations work best during in-house testing of the software, where they check connection links and traffic load to ensure the network doesn’t fail when they go live.

The company’s network has also been designed to enable what CryptoLogic calls remote user-acceptance testing by its licensees. Gaming operators connect to CryptoLogic’s data centre in Toronto and test the software they’ve purchased from whichever island location they’re in.

In user-acceptance testing, licensees can also reach back through the network and connect to other software systems that work with the gambling software, says Simpson. For example, they may have their own financial application that takes care of all the transactions, which is integrated behind the scenes with CryptoLogic’s poker software.

“Networking is allowing us to do this kind of testing effectively, whereas before we would have maybe had some people fly over here physically to do testing. Networking technologies have helped us evolve to reduce our costs and become more effective with our clients.”

Spreading the load

According to Simpson, islands typically don’t have the most advanced data centres, with the technology built in to guarantee connectivity, backup power supply and redundant routers. “You’re quite exposed on an island,” he says. The island networks are prone to unpredictable outages and instabilities. “Downtime is rare, but still significant.”

CryptoLogic is working to build more intelligence into its application architecture, says Simpson. The aim is to make its software more aware of the traffic’s behaviour on the network and the availability of different data centres.

The next generation aims to switch application content, not only communication traffic. Applications will become better at switching load around data centres, he says, meaning the software will have the ability to flip the gaming activity from one data centre to another in mid-transaction.

When a transaction is distributed for processing across data centres, the application keeps a mirror of the transaction, which ping-pongs around between data centres. If processing fails, the mirror image steps up to continue processing at the next available data centre.

“We’ll be able to move gaming activity between data centres on the fly,” says Simpson. “If one jurisdiction goes down – if one data centre disappears – then gaming activity continues in a seamless fashion [from another location].”

The technology will also keep the cost of exit by a jurisdiction minimal. Gambling laws on the islands are unpredictable and highly susceptible to change, says Simpson, so the global network can easily lose a data centre. “The laws are so volatile that we may have to move data centres around, so the easier it is for us to do that, the less we need to rely on one jurisdiction.”

Power play

Simpson says CryptoLogic provides support only for Sun Microsystems platforms. The company’s software is designed for the Sun Fire v20z and v40z servers and runs optimally on Sun’s Solaris 10 operating system. Licensees were experiencing reliability issues with previous hardware, according to Simpson, so the company began testing with Solaris 10 and switched to Sun’s 64-bit servers.

CryptoLogic wanted to build a powerful computing platform that could be expanded and enhanced when needed, says Ibrahim Canakci, a data centre sales manager for Sun Microsystems of Canada Inc. “They were growing fast and they wanted very high performance from their systems.”

Simpson says Solaris 10 has a more efficient threading model and TCP-IP network stack. The operating system can process more commands faster, and its communication protocols provide enhanced networking capabilities.

The new platforms allowed CryptoLogic to consolidate its computing resources, essentially doing more with less. The move to 64-bit dual-core servers cut the company’s server count in half, says Simpson. “Instead of a thousand poker tables being hosted on one server, we now have 2,000. That was the real success for us,” says Simpson.

The next step is to upgrade the two-way v20z servers to the Galaxy x4100 machines, which Sun launched late last year. Simpson says load testing has been completed and the Galaxy will be CryptoLogic’s next supported platform.

When the next Moneymaker bluffs his way to Vegas, odds are he’ll get there online, on the back of some of the most powerful high-performance computing technology. It’s a part of networking that’s helping make pop culture happen.

Related Download
Virtualization: For Victory Over IT Complexity Sponsor: HPE
Virtualization: For Victory Over IT Complexity
Download this white paper to learn how to effectively deploy virtualization and create your own high-performance infrastructures
Register Now