Golf has always been a test of the players, their wits and their equipment. Now its also putting IBMs on-demand computing technology to the ultimate test. The PGA Tour has launched TourCast, an interactive online application that lets subscribers follow tournament action—every player, hole and shot—in real time.
Before the concept could become a reality, PGA Tour officials had to be sure TourCast would be able to provide real-time data that was reliable and accurate. This meant its system had to handle the huge peak loads expected during tournaments.
PGA of America officials weighed many alternatives before deciding that it will be more cost-effective to partner with IBM, of Armonk, N.Y., rather than buy the hardware required to host the application.
"We chose Linux Virtual Services ... which lets us buy processing power on demand, by the service unit, which is a measure that equates to the processing power being used," said Steve Evans, vice president of IS for the PGA Tour, based in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. "These service units are based on our anticipated demand, so we do not have to overdeploy capacity and are only charged for what we use."
At the core of the service are virtual servers running on IBM zSeries mainframes and IBM Enterprise Storage servers running Linux at IBM e-business hosting centers. By partitioning the processing, storage and network capacity for each customer, IBM isolates individual demand and maps resources to it, said Jim Corgel, general manager for IBM e-business on-demand services.
TourCast underwent a soft launch at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am earlier this month. The live launch took place at last weekends Nissan Open in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
"The Pebble Beach soft launch was largely successful, but there was an internal system problem late in the week, which prevented all the data coming in from the outlying courses to be processed as quickly as needed. This prevented the tournament from being scored the way we wanted it to be," Jack White, director of the PGAs ShotLink system, said in an interview here.
"Thats the reason we have a soft launch—to identify those things. Pebble Beach is also the largest tournament we have regarding data, since the field is so large. Its the tournament that gives us a good read as far as loads are concerned," White said.
The raw data that powers the TourCast application comes from the ShotLink scoring engine, which was designed by the Tour in partnership with IBM, Palm Inc. and others.
The data is gathered from the field on a real-time basis, and every stroke made by every player is captured by a walking scorer and entered into a Palm OS handheld device. That data is then transmitted by surveying-grade data radio back to the on-site ShotLink trailer.
When everything is running smoothly and there are no problems with radio frequencies, it takes about 2 seconds for the data to be transferred from the Palm OS device to the main system, where it is processed and dispersed to clients such as TourCast in about 7 seconds.
Some 36 portable laser machines are also involved in the data collection process. For each of the 18 holes, there is one laser on the fairway to capture the distance of a tee shot and one next to each green. The scanner is manually operated, and data is entered and transmitted via a Palm OS device. The laser captures the position of the golf ball to within 3 inches on the fairway and within a centimeter on the green.
Global Positioning System is initially used to map each course. PGA staff then put in reference stakes so that every day when these are set up and shot, the system automatically recognizes where the laser is. If any changes are made to the golf course between PGA tournaments, that area has to be remapped and the changes entered into the system.
All raw data from the field is fed into a trailer, the technical heart of the operation, which houses 11 IBM e335 servers and three IBM Netfinity 1000 servers. The data is channeled to the trailers production room, where three data coordinators verify it.
Jeff Howell, assistant manager for ShotLink technical operations and the person responsible for setting up, maintaining and dismantling the complex operation at every tournament site, said that the week before the tournament begins, he allocates frequencies for voice and data, which are then monitored via a spectrum analyzer and a handheld scanner.
TourCast, designed as an interactive entertainment tool, takes that data and presents it in graphical animation online.
Looking to the future, Evans said TourCast could be expanded to include the PGA Champions Tour. "But were trying to get our arms around this first and to see what user demand is like," he said.
TourCast subscribers can sign up at pgatour.com to get 14 days free access. Thereafter, monthly fees start at $9.95.
Read more stories about IBM:
Search for more stories by Peter Galli.