A long bet on DevOps: an interview with Paddy Power Betfair CTO Paul Cutter

John Leonard
Paul Cutter, CTO, Paddy Power Betfair

Paul Cutter, CTO, Paddy Power Betfair

I was doing DevOps long before it became a thing, says Cutter

When bookmaker Betfair merged with rival Paddy Power in 2016 to create one of the largest global online gambling businesses, Paul Cutter had already been CTO for two years. He joined Betfair from Sky where was director of software engineering; prior to that, he'd had the same job title at AOL. If he has a game plan it could be ‘stick with what you know'.

A strong advocate of Agile development, for many years Cutter has been managing software production using a methodology that now has a recognised label. 

"I was running Agile teams at Sky and those teams were deploying their own code to production and supporting it in production. So that's the definition of DevOps before DevOps became a real thing," he said.

Two into one

On arriving at Betfair, Cutter accelerated the existing DevOps setup, introducing automated testing and giving developers more access to production. He is now pushing further in that direction, but for the last two years much of his team's efforts have been diverted into integrating the two firms' IT systems together.

Fortunately, the pieces of the jigsaw were a good fit: Paddy Power's background is in trading and risk management systems while Betfair was stronger at the front end - HTML5 and customer-facing apps. So, to a certain extent it was a case of bolting the two together. The two brands now share the same infrastructure, each with the best bits of the other.

With the merger out of the way, Cutter is now able to devote more time to application delivery. 

"Now we are much more focused on where we go with that platform and opportunities for growth and some of that is around new product development," he said.

"We are automating everything. We've already automated much of our deployment using continuous integration tools and we've got our own pipeline, so a big part of our focus is on how to optimise that to improve the speed and the coverage of this pipeline."

In parallel with the platform integration, work has been going to translate more infrastructure to code on the firm's OpenStack-based private cloud, which was launched three years ago. Some Ops people might feel nervous about increasing automation, but Cutter said any such individuals have already left Paddy Power Betfair and the current crew is supportive.

"We have a very engaged Ops team who completely buy into this way of working. Obviously people have different skillsets and someone with a networking skillset might not be up some of the finer points of development, but they understand the benefits of automation and scripting when it comes to configuring infrastructure."

With developers too, there inevitably are some who take to DevOps and some who just don't. Often this is a question of personality, Cutter said.

In terms of hiring people it's less about qualifications and more about mindset

"In terms of hiring people, it's less about qualifications and more about mindset. To do DevOps you need developers who are interested in how the applications actually behave in production and are interested in the whole deployment architecture and how software gets deployed because it's very different running something in production than running it in a test system.

"What we find is as long as we hire people who have the right interests they can pick up the specific development environment because most of these things are built using scripting language, using open source tools which are familiar to a developer who's been building web applications or things like that."

Upping the cloud ante

The world of enterprise applications is fast moving cloudwards, the general trajectory being appliances - private cloud - public cloud or hybrid. Paddy Power Betfair is no exception. 

"We still have some legacy which is running on the old native infrastructure and we're in the process of moving that across, but all the new stuff that we build is on the private cloud and increasingly we looking at public cloud too," Cutter explained.

To increase flexibility of deployment, the firm will also be looking to break up its applications further into containerised microservices.

"We're are looking quite seriously at containers. We don't use serverless extensively but we are exploring that too," Cutter said.

Currently, data and analytics are hosted on AWS while the company maintains its hundreds of applications on the private cloud spread across two data centres. The private cloud, put in place three years ago,  has enabled Cutter's team to take more control over the production pipeline by allowing the configuration of infrastructure as code and making it easier to demonstrate its data security credentials to the regulators.

"To be honest we are equally rigorous about how we manage data in both private and public clouds. We do have customer data in the public cloud but our top priority is to make sure it's secured and encrypted. So while we apply the same standards in our public and private clouds, from the regulatory point of view private has advantages."

Paddy Power Betfair is looking at chatbots to ease the burden on the customer contact team. AI is also used routinely for fraud detection although it hasn't made it into any of the firm's products as yet.

Cutter is cagey about planned new features ("it's a very competitive industry") but says that his focus is on "improving the quality of our products and the speed of our products".

Recent years have seen a great deal of consolidation in the betting industry, with competitors joining forces to achieve the required reach and global scale. Paddy Power Betfair will be hoping its gamble on technology pays off.  

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