zSeries Mainframes Power Pro Golf's On-Demand Computing

PGA Tour leverages IBM’s Virtual Linux Services running on zSeries to support key application

At LinuxWorld last week, IBM Corp. touted the use of zSeries mainframes as the “power plant[s]” for its nascent "e-business on-demand" computing initiative.

Big Blue announced that the Pro Golf Association (PGA) Tour will use its Virtual Linux Services—running on zSeries mainframes—to host an application, called TOURCast, that will allow golf fans to follow PGA Tournament action in real time.

The goal of TOURCast, says Steve Evans, VP of information services for PGA Tour, is to provide an experience in which fans can follow a tournament from the perspective of their favorite player. “You get to pick which player you want to follow around. You can pick, say, Phil Mickelson and follow him around for a day. If he hits the ball in a bunker, you get to follow him in.”

TOURCast is based on an existing application, ShotLink, which PGA Tour developed in conjunction with IBM several years ago.

Even before PGA Tour’s IT decision makers sat down to plan the application that was to become TOURCast, Evans says, the decision was made to outsource it. “From a hosting standpoint, we’ve shied away from trying to host applications of any scale ourselves.”

In this case, he explains, PGA Tour felt that it could make better use of its programming resources by concentrating on the development of the TOURCast user interface, which is largely based on the Web-centric Flash programming language from Macromedia Inc.

The idea, Evans notes, was that PGA Tour’s developers could deliver a finished application that could be quickly deployed as a hosted service. “We wanted to be very focused on our application and not so focused on the technology behind it, so we were hoping that when we were finished, we could just plug the application [in] and it would run. We wanted to put all of our energy into the user interface, and we didn’t want to put any into the hosting of the application itself.”

Largely as a result of its prior work with IBM on the creation of ShotLink, Evans acknowledges, Big Blue was high on the PGA Tour’s short list of partners to assist with the development and hosting of TOURCast.

At the same time, Evans stresses, the requirements of the TOURCast application—which is designed to deliver a graphics-intensive experience to an always-unpredictable number of users—were such that the PGA Tour couldn’t simply partner with friends. Prospective candidates had to first demonstrate that they could deliver the technology and computing horsepower—along with an equally compelling pricing model—to make TOURCast a reality.

Evans says IBM clearly had the best story. “We were convinced that Linux running on the mainframe was the best solution, in terms of [IBM] offered to host the application and scale it for demand, without having to scale it for the peak [usage],” noting that IBM’s on-demand Virtual Linux Service allows PGA Tour to pay only for the capacity that it actually uses.

For his part, Jim Stallings, IBM General Manager of Linux, says that the requirements of an application such as TOURCast are what e-business on-demand computing was originally designed for. “For peak load periods where they need more capacity, they can buy from us. So it’s designed for a customer that has demand periods that fluctuate significantly, and [for which] the ability to increase or decrease capacity is important.”

As for delivering enough capacity to meet even the most demanding of user loads, Evans maintains, IBM’s on-demand Virtual Linux Service running on zSeries hardware is a no-brainer: “One of the things that we were very concerned about was what the demand requirements would be from golf fans. In our business, it’s very difficult to predict when we will have a peak in traffic, so we have to be prepared for almost anything.” IBM’s on-demand Virtual Linux Service was also a nice fit because PGA Tour had traditionally done most of its development work on Linux. “The servers for PGAtour.com have been Linux servers for a number of years, so we already have [Linux development] skills [in-house].”

Warren Hart, director of Web hosting offerings for IBM’s Global Services unit, describes the experience of PGA Tour and TOURCast as a “proof point” for IBM’s e-business-on-demand computing initiative. “In the traditional dedicated model, you have to size your capacity for the biggest minute, of the biggest day, of the busiest year, then you have to add for growth or contingency. In our model, we take the average of your workload projection over a 24-hour period. That’s it.

Moreover, he suggests, zSeries mainframes are poised to play a key role as IBM continues to make on-demand computing services available to its customers. “It’s very fair to say that the zSeries platform’s classic mainframe technology is the single most scalable platform that you can find, and it is rock solid reliable. Our ability to scale it is extraordinary. So this is the power plant for utility computing.”

Hart speculates that IBM’s pricing structure—in which it charges customers in $300 service units that are based on an average of their workloads over a 24 hour period—can make the security, reliability and scalability of zSeries mainframes available to shops that otherwise couldn’t afford the investment in hardware or support personnel. “There are a number of customers who say: ‘I love the reliability. I love the scalability. I love the security … but having [to make] a capital investment, and having to have all of these skills in house is beyond my budget.’ This gives them the ability to have the power and flexibility of Linux in a true utility model.”

TOURCast is currently in beta, Evans says, but is expected to be unveiled as a pay-for-use subscription service in the next month or so. A free version of TOURCast will also be offered.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.