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Golf might seem like a sedate sport, but a cloud-led digital transformation is helping the European Tour to push real-time data to fans, broadcasters, and partners around the world.

When Michael Cole became CTO of the European Tour and Ryder Cup in November 2017, one of his first priorities was to help the organization move from a clunky, served-based architecture — where information was transferred through file transfer protocol — to real-time data processing enabled by the cloud.

The result of this transformation effort is the European Tour Exchange (ETX), which draws information from disparate sources and uses application programming interfaces to push data to people who need it most. 

Now, Cole’s team collects as many as 700,000 data points from players at each of the 40-plus tournaments they help run annually. Here, he explains to VentureBeat how the European Tour is making the most of the cloud.

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VentureBeat: How does the ETX form part of your operational activity?

Michael Cole: It’s a back-of-house facility, but as we develop its capability, more and more will become front-of-house. We’ve totally re-engineered our backend in terms of how we ingest and manage data across the organization. So, we’ve moved from an environment that was very clunky and very server-based to one that is now based on the cloud and has an API wrapper around it. We’re now able to manage data in a far more efficient and effective way. 

VentureBeat: What are the benefits of the cloud-based approach?

Cole: It’s important because we have several internal systems that we need to support, but equally we have several external partners that we need to support as well. So, we effectively have the ability now to push out that data in real time. I’ve got total control of my data end to end, and that wasn’t the case previously when I was reliant on the foundations of technology to work its magic. Now, we’ve got total control because of the way we’ve engineered that data and created an API environment. 

VentureBeat: What are the products you’re using?

Cole: The ETX is built on SQL-based servers, but they’re hosted on Azure. SQL presents the best capability and range of technologies in terms of the stack for us to develop. Azure is the Microsoft platform that we use at a business level as we’re going through our transformation and putting more of our systems into a cloud-based environment. Where we are utilizing third-party systems, then we will adopt those cloud-based services depending on how those third parties choose to host their own systems. Where we are hosting our own systems, and our own virtual servers on our platforms, then Azure is our platform of choice.

VentureBeat: What was the project timeline?

Cole: We started when I came on board in 2017. I recognized the need with immediate effect. There’s no timeline to the ETX project because it’s ongoing, and it’s evolving. I mentioned that we started this project with the backend in mind. And now we’re bringing it to the front-of-house, and we will look to externalize it. We’re developing tools for media and broadcast commentators. We need to think about what the difference is between those two groups and how they relate – broadcast is very much about real-time information. So, we are extending the ETX to bring this capability directly into the hands of the media.

VentureBeat: What challenges did you face before implementing the ETX?

Cole: Let me give an example through what I call green-to-screen, which is getting data up to our scoreboards. Based on our traditional methods of scoring through volunteers, we had no control – and getting data as a score live on a scoreboard could take anything from 37 to 57 seconds. That was because of the nature of the clogs that had to turn in order to get the data where we wanted it. Now we’ve got total control. Data is fed through in real-time shot by shot, ingested into the ETX, and pushed out through API mechanisms. In fact, we put a delay on the data feed because we must protect the integrity of information that we’re feeding to the betting community. It’s a very different philosophy to the past.

VentureBeat: How do you deal with the ‘build versus buy’ question?

Cole: The benefit that partners provide is really about bringing in expertise, their range of capabilities, and their experience. We are certainly far more services-oriented than we’ve ever been before. That will always be the foremost route that we will take, but there will be situations whereby — based upon the requirement — that I believe the expertise will reside in-house. There’s no kind of magical rule that says, ‘this is the way it needs to be’. It’s about weighing up pros and cons from an in-house development through to a more services-oriented, strategic direction that we will take into the longer term.

VentureBeat: What does this shift to services mean for the people in the IT department?

Cole: Our strategy from a technological perspective is about empowering staff across our business to take on more of the operational delivery. Technology permits that, if it’s done in the right way. So, a good example of that is how we used to set up our tournaments, such as the entry list, player field, and draws. In our legacy systems, a lot of responsibility fell to a very small number of individuals within the technology team. Now, as part of our overall ETX development, we’ve built out that capability with several tools that enable the business themselves to set up tournaments as they’re scheduled. That’s a fundamental shift in how the organization performs today and will continue to perform moving forward. 

VentureBeat: How can you get the rest of the business to buy into your vision?

Cole: I always maintain that, whenever you’re looking at the development of capability and driving innovation in an organization, you can look at three layers: system, process, and culture. Now, we can change systems overnight. Changing processes may take us a little more time. But changing culture involves a mindset, and sometimes that can take a little longer than any of us would ideally like. But if you get the right systems in place, and you get the right processes in place, and you develop the range of capabilities with the end user in mind, then I firmly believe that you can actually accelerate that cultural shift.

VentureBeat: How is the ETX helping your business to work more effectively?

Cole: I always maintain that one of our greatest assets that we have is the ability to be truly agile as an organization. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, we were well-placed because we’d already undertaken a huge amount of transformation across the business. We were agile in our work and our approach. Services were already being pushed into the cloud. We were collaborative in terms of our adoption of video-conferencing facilities. In fact, over the course of the pandemic, we probably utilized in the region of 40,000 collaboration sessions across the organization.

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