NHL slims down entry draft systems

National Hockey League general managers recently divvied up hockey’s best young prospects using a thin client solution provided by Sun Microsystems Inc.

At the 2002 Entry Draft representatives from the league’s 30 teams met recently on the floor of Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (ACC) and, through nine selection rounds over two days, picked the next generation of hockey superstars. With so much riding on the each team’s selections, plus television cameras rolling during the early rounds, the NHL considered the floor technology absolutely mission critical, said Peter DelGiacco, the league’s New York-based vice-president of information technology.

DelGiacco also said that preparation time and turnaround time at the site were the biggest challenges his team faced. “Obviously we knew that the draft was coming, but when we knew that we were going to migrate over to Sun [equipment] – new hardware, new operating software – we wanted to be sure that this application was going to be stable and it would be able to handle the workload for this event,” he said.

Since Sun just became the NHL’s official technology partner in January of this year, the technology solution the company devised to wire the ACC’s floor was not visionary, said Brian Foley a Detroit-based technologist with Sun’s Global Sales Organization. However, he added, it does show a practical application of Sun’s interoperability in the thin client computing model.

Without time to port the League’s existing customized Lotus Notes application to another environment, providing 30 team tables with staff access to a Notes Client was a dicey problem, Foley said. For starters, although the Lotus Domino Server is supported on Sun Solaris OE systems, no Lotus Notes Client is available for Solaris – only for Windows, he said.

The hockey brain trusts sitting at each table saw only the Sun Ray thin client – or “intelligent display” – devices running their familiar Lotus Notes draft app, Foley said. But underneath, when users logged in, Solaris started a piece of client software by third-party vendor Tarantella that let the NHL’s Windows app access the Solaris operating environment. And all of this ran on Sun server, processor and storage hardware with multiple power supplies with high availability and redundancies, just in case something happened, he said.

While this architecture may seem a bit contorted, there are many benefits to running a thin client model for the draft, Foley said. For example, with everything centralized on one server, the system was both flexible and easy to configure and manage, he said.

And to make sure nothing went wrong Foley brought the actual server down to NHL HQ a month before the big event for DelGiacco and his staff to test.

“To simulate the draft we attached eight or 10 thin clients and, as we’ve done in the past for this applications with different architectures, we had a pretend draft here for nine rounds, making sure that everything would work right,” DelGiacco said.

And as far as Trevor Timmins, director of hockey operations for the Ottawa Senators, could see, the technology on the ACC floor worked like a charm. For each round Timmins worked the machine himself and, with all the tension and commotion, he was glad both the Sun Ray and the application were so user-friendly, he said. With 20 front-office staff and all their books and gear piled around the team table the small footprint was a help too, he said.

“All the information (about the prospects) that we would have back at our office was there at our fingertips, but one thing that they should have is a bulletin or window you could click that showed you all the trades that were made during the draft. There’s so many trades during the day it would have been nice to be able to (follow them) and the PA system was terrible at the ACC – you couldn’t make out what the announcer was saying – so when there was a trade nobody could understand exactly what it was,” he said.

After last year, when the NHL’s IT staff had to set up and manage 40 or 50 full PCs on the floor, complete with OS installs and licensing issues, DelGiacco also liked the simplicity of the thin client model. At a long event, he said, the last thing you want to do is spend a few more hours packing, unpacking and preparing.

Sun’s thin client architecture also offers “session mobility” meaning that when the user plugs in a personalized smart card their individual application pops up, no matter which terminal they are using. Although the team reps stayed at the same stations all weekend, if a terminal had died the technicians could have just blown the styrofoam chips off a new one, plugged it into the network, and the same session and settings would have instantly reappeared on the device.

Although there is room for a little tinkering with the application, the Senator’s Timmins said that using the network really did save a lot of time and confusion.

“I’ve been involved in the NHL entry draft for 10 years now, so I was there before we had a system like this in place. (Previously) it was done manually – we would write the name of the player and a runner would actually run the piece of paper up to the NHL office at the front of the arena. When you’re discussing picks and players and it comes time to make your selection you don’t want to delay things that way,” he said.