MSR Tech Watch: The Masters is a ‘Major’ IT Challenge for IBM

Everything about the Masters, from Magnolia Lane to the blooming azaleas to the old-timey scoreboards, oozes tradition. But to make sure that you can see all that old-timey stuff on your iPad, it takes a lot of new technology and online-infrastructure smarts. That’s where IBM comes in, as the white-bibbed caddie who makes the Masters come alive online.

“The Masters is all about being more than a tournament, it’s about being a service to the game of golf,” said John Kent, sponsorship marketing technology manager for IBM, which provides much of the technical underpinnings for the Masters.com site and all the tournament’s scoring tabulations. “The challenge is to preserve all the history and tradition, and balance it with technology.”

Take those scoreboards — the iconic white signs that provide drama all their own, when names and scores are manually shifted in a pleasing delay after roars are heard from distant parts of the course. Though technology exists to create LED leaderboards that could update in real time, Kent said the tradition of the manual white boards isn’t going away from Augusta.

“There’s a lot of drama at the course with the manual scoreboards — you can be sitting at 18 and hear a roar somewhere else, and then you watch the scoreboard and wait for that tile to disappear,” Kent said. “The funny thing is, those are the most highly automated manual leaderboards out there, with wireless connections to the crew in back.”

Real-time video another Masters innovation

Since most golf fans aren’t lucky enough to have a Masters badge, the next best thing to being there is live video — and IBM helps the tournament provide a plethora of streaming images at the Masters.com website. During last year’s tournament Kent said the site served up 3 million video streams on Saturday and another 4 million on Sunday, an amazing online total when you consider that many golf fans are glued to the regular broadcast and its almost commercial-free serenity.

According to Kent, the explosion of handheld devices that can serve up video images is partly responsible for the growth in online viewing of the Masters — the Saturday and Sunday online video totals mentioned above were 40 and 80 percent higher respectively than the stats from the same days the year before, and he expects more growth in mobile viewing this year. “We’re seeing a trend of people using the Masters.com site at work on Thursday and Friday, and then using mobile devices on the weekend,” Kent said. “They’re just taking advantage of the best experience available.”

And to make sure that experience is Masters quality, the IBM tech team does its own “range work” in the offseason. This year that meant testing numerous Android-powered devices so that the release this year of the first Android Masters app would be green-jacket good.

“The complexity this year was in the number of devices we had to test,” Kent said. Apple’s iOS, he said, is easier to support since there are a finite amount of things to look at. But with Android devices, Kent said, there is a wide range of differences, not just in hardware form factors but in the different ways the manufacturers implement the Google OS.

At the golf course, IBM does bring in a truckload of servers to help gather, encode and send out to the Internet the video streams for the seven different channels on the Masters.com site. But you might never see any of this infrastructure on camera — just another part of how the tournament and the Augusta National club combine new technology with tradition.

One advantage the Masters has over other major tournaments is that it is played on the same course every year. To support quality images — Kent noted that the Masters was the first golf tournament to be broadcast in color, and the first to use HD — Augusta National has buried miles of fiber beneath its azaleas, to bring signals from cameras without cables lying around.

“The Masters uses plenty of technology, but you’ll never see it,” said Kent.

IBM customers benefit from Masters tests

While there are few businesses that have the kind of explosive one-weekend stress test traffic that the Masters does — Kent said the Masters.com site attracted 10 million unique users last year, who totaled 197 million page views — IBM does learn a lot about how to dynamically allocate resources during the event, which ultimately serves corporate customers better.

“We have a single cloud infrastructure that supports it all, the scores, and the live video,” Kent said about the Masters.com back end. “And our [corporate] clients struggle with the same things — how to build the right cloud and how to dynamically allocate resources as efficiently as possible.”

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