The British & Irish Lions, together with software developer Sequence, used Windows Azure to create a mobile app that met the customer’s needs for compelling content, scalability, and reliability, and rapid—but low-cost—development.
Non-Professionals Easily Upload Near- Real-Time Video
“We did this app for the fans, to give them something we’d never offered before in the way of involvement with the team,” says Shane Whelan, Digital Communications Manager for The British & Irish Lions. “We succeeded. We gave them a real taste of what it was like to be on the Tour.”
According to Whelan, user feedback on the app was overwhelmingly positive. He attributes that to unusual features, a lot of interactivity, and a deliberate focus on ease of use. “You’d expect to see text and pictures and even video on the app, but we put video footage on the app that wasn’t widely used and that most fans wouldn’t have seen until our DVD came out,” he says. “It was immediate video. We had fans using the app and watching the video successfully on every type of phone and tablet—but we got the most comments about the video on the Lumia and Surface; it looked fantastic.”
One key to the “immediate video” was that Whelan and a couple of his colleagues were taking and uploading video themselves. “We couldn’t have done shared video over an app with fans halfway around the world if Microsoft hadn’t made it so easy for us,” he says.
Supports 12,000 Page Requests per Second with 10 Instances
The Lions and Surface couldn’t know how many simultaneous fans they’d have to support with the new app—but they had to make sure that the app wouldn’t crash under the load. It didn’t.
The highest loads came to about 360,000 page requests per minute for updated statistical data, peaking at about 12,000 requests per second. The app also supported up to 30 Mbps of game data and more than 50 gigabytes of streaming video per day.
The app supported these requests with a maximum of 10 instances of Windows Azure—a relatively small number, according to Stoneman. “We found the most elegant and practical solution with regard to hosting the app was to choose Windows Azure,” says Stoneman, “thus enabling us to cope with the massive traffic predicted during key times, match days for example, and giving us the flexibility and freedom to engage with as many users as possible. Using Windows Azure also provided peace of mind that the app would be very reliable and quick.”
Reduces Development Time and Cost, and Hosting Expense by 80 Percent
The Lions wanted their app to be produced quickly and cost-effectively. Because of the running start that the development team got from using familiar Microsoft technology and ready-built infrastructure components such as Windows Azure Media Services, The Lions met this goal, too.
Stoneman estimates that using Windows Azure reduced development time and cost by 80 percent. “We had less than three months to produce the app,” he notes. “We couldn’t have delivered the full-featured app on this schedule, meeting this budget, without Windows Azure.”
Hosting costs were similarly reduced, because of the ability to scale Windows Azure instances up and down quickly in response to changes in demand.
Motivating fans wasn’t the only challenge that the British & Irish Lions addressed with the help of a Windows Azure app. Another was the challenge of monitoring the team’s fitness in order to optimize its training and—management hoped—its performance.
Solution provider Elite Edge had built a Linux- and Adobe Flex–based app for the Welsh Rugby Union that included a questionnaire that players answered, covering everything from how long and well they’d slept the night before to any sniffles, aches, or pains they felt. On the basis of that information, coaches could choose players for a day’s game, increase or decrease the day’s training load, change specialized schedules, or work around players who needed time to recuperate from injuries—but who wouldn’t have admitted their weakness to a coach or other players.
When the Lions saw the app, they knew it could be a major help—but who on the team knew how to manage a Linux server application a world away from the team’s home office? That’s where Microsoft came in. Elite Edge worked with Microsoft to host the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) back end on a Windows Azure infrastructure as a service virtual machine, without modification. None of the Lions staff—non-techies all—needed to manage it or even worry about it.
“We were a Linux house, and we thought hosting Linux on Windows Azure would be tough,” says Macdara Butler, Commercial Director at Elite Edge. “We were wrong. Everything just worked. And the console and configuration flexibility was an advantage over what we see from other cloud providers.”
The developers used the Microsoft Visual Studio 2012 development system to rewrite the original HTML 5 client app as a Windows 8 Metro-style app using the HTML JS approach with XAML, and they completed this process—their first Windows development experience—in 200 hours. The app ran on Microsoft Surface Pro tablets, which meant that the team could connect them to digital weighing scales via USB, something they couldn’t have done, for example, with iPads.
The Lions players took to the app immediately and completed the daily self-surveys in 40 percent less time than their Welsh colleagues had needed for the earlier version. That savings—20 seconds per player per survey—was truly significant. “Rugby players aren’t mouse-and-keyboard types,” says Butler. “Getting them in and out faster means we were more likely to get them to take the surveys in the first place, making the data and analysis more meaningful. And that 20 seconds per player added up fast; it gave coaches about 10 minutes more each morning to plan their schedules.”
How effective was the app? For the first time in 16 years, the Lions won the Tour. No one at the Lions says that’s because of the app, of course. But no one wants to stop using it, either.