It’s relatively easy to get the best rugby players in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales to the other side of the planet; just put them on a jet. But how do you take along 100 million of their closest fans?
That’s a question that plagued The British & Irish Lions as they planned their quadrennial Tour to challenge the best rugby teams in the Southern Hemisphere, 2013 would see them visit both Hong Kong and Australia. The Lions—named Team of the Year at the 2013 BBC Sports Personality Awards—are a unique occurrence in modern sport. The best of the best coming together only once every four years. To be picked for the Lions Tour is the highest accolade a player can receive.
The 2013 Tour—marking the 125th anniversary of the event—was fraught with suspense: The Lions had not won a Tour in 16 years. Would this be the year to end that streak? Fans would be particularly keen to know. And their engagement with the event would no doubt be a huge morale-booster for the team, helping to spur them to victory. But most fans, of course, could not be in Hong Kong and Australia to cheer on their team. Was there another way to engage them, to both capture and ignite their excitement?
The Tour had long been televised—most recently, to 50 countries—and the 2009 Tour had boasted an elaborate website. But this time The Lions wanted to do more. They wanted a highly innovative way to excite fans and to encourage them to participate in the Tour—as much as would be possible from half a planet away. And for the fans who did go along for the Tour, The Lions wanted to provide a central source for all the information they needed.
That degree of interactivity suggested an app, but not just any app. It would have to be an app that could deliver a compelling user experience on whatever device a fan might have, with easy navigation through a variety of data sources, including video, player statistics, social media, and more. Because The Lions would promote the app to millions of people worldwide, it had to be reliable and scalable. And, given the rapidly approaching Tour, it had to be developed quickly—within three months—and cost-effectively.
The Lions turned to Sequence, a UK-based Microsoft Partner with multiple Gold competencies. Together, they produced The British & Irish Lions Official App, which met The Lions' ambitious requirements—and more. (The Lions used another Microsoft Azure app to monitor player fitness. See sidebar below.)
One of the most consequential decisions of the project was the choice to host the app on Microsoft Azure, the Microsoft cloud platform. Sequence supports both Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services, but saw several technical advantages for The Lions on the Microsoft alternative.
"Microsoft technology is already embedded in our processes," explains Jon Stoneman, Chief Technology Officer at Sequence. "Microsoft Azure is an extension of that; it's just easier, more natural for us to use. Also, the use of Microsoft Azure Media Services saved us the need to create video encoding and other media services on our own."
Stoneman was also confident that Microsoft Azure would provide the scalability and reliability essential to a compelling experience for millions of users around the globe.
The app took full advantage of the ability to "write once, run anywhere" with Microsoft Azure; it ran on eight devices (including Windows Phone 7, Windows Phone 8, Windows 8, iOS for mobile and tablet, and Android for mobile and tablet). The app took particular advantage of Windows 8 features such as live tiles, customizable lock screen, and share charm to boost the its visual appeal and interactivity.
The app used Microsoft Azure Websites to support its scalability, which went as high as 10 instances during matches and as low as 2 instances at other times. Developers used the Microsoft Azure CDN to provide the global reach that the app required, while minimizing throughput bottlenecks. And Sequence used Microsoft Azure worker roles to pull news stories and player statistics from third-party sources and to update them in the app every few seconds.
As required, the app debuted in March 2013, three months before the start of the Tour, and well in time to contribute to the marketing momentum. It featured in-depth Tour text, statistics, photos, and video, and the ability to share information with the rest of the online sporting community through a featured Twitter feed. Fans were encouraged to brush up on team songs with a song sheet feature and then post their renditions on the team's Facebook page.
A popular “on the plane” competition gave fans the chance to create their own dream squads. Those who submitted correct predictions of the actual lineup were entered into a drawing, with the winner invited to attend the squad announcement as the guest of Microsoft and of British television personality former Lions player Will Greenwood. The competition was also featured on The Lions' website and on MSN, with contest entries from those various front ends all flowing to a single logical back end on Microsoft Azure, including a single SQL Azure Database.
The “behind-the-scenes” content was among the app's most popular. It featured videos shot by The Lions themselves, using Nokia Lumia 920 Windows Phones and Microsoft Surface tablets, and uploaded by the team to Microsoft Azure for fans to access through the app.In 2013, for the first time in 16 years, The Lions won their Tour. And thanks to a Microsoft Azure app, their fans were virtually there to cheer them on to victory.
The British & Irish Lions, together with software developer Sequence, used Microsoft 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 Microsoft 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 Microsoft 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 Microsoft 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 Microsoft Azure Media Services, The Lions met this goal, too.
Stoneman estimates that using Microsoft 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 Microsoft Azure."Hosting costs were similarly reduced, because of the ability to scale Microsoft Azure instances up and down quickly in response to changes in demand.
Sidebar: Winning the Tour: There's an App for That
Motivating fans wasn't the only challenge that the British & Irish Lions addressed with the help of a Microsoft 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 Microsoft 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 Microsoft 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 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 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.
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For more information about Sequence products and services, visit the website at: www.sequence.co.uk/
For more information about Elite Edge products and services, visit the website at: www.eliteedge.com
For more information about British & Irish Lions, visit the website at: www.lionsrugby.com
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