Forget Cool--Reliability Reigns At The Olympics

100,000 hours of testing and 500 what-if scenarios later, Olympics IT managers are ready for the 2006 Torino Winter Games to begin; a hardware deployment of 6,000 desktops, 800 notebooks,

January 30, 2006

10 Min Read
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Picture this: U.S. speed skating star and gold-medal hopeful Chad Hedrick crosses the finish line first in the 1,500-meter race at the Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy, but a computer fails to register the result. As millions of viewers look on, four years of intense training go down the drain in an unrecorded split second.

Parallel Giant Slalom And Snowboard Cross Run

That kind of nightmare is unlikely, but it could haunt Olympic athletes in the final days leading up to Torino 2006, especially if they know about computer-generated inaccuracies at the 1996 games that forced IBM to issue an apology. And it's just that scenario Olympic organizers hope to avoid as they invest $400 million in IT for the games, with stability and reliability as the guiding principles behind that spending. It's why wireless capabilities will be offered as an add-on to Olympics IT systems but aren't being used in any main systems running the games, and why there's an extensive redundant network in case of power and telephone outages.

It's a mind-set that has required Olympic organizers to resist pressure from tech companies to use the most-up-to-date technologies for important functions. "We're looking to have high quality but mainly a reliable solution," says Enrico Frascari, director of technology for the Turin Organizing Committee. Frascari's approach is similar to one that David Busser took as CIO of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. "I like to think we were innovative, but it's not innovation at the cost of additional risk," Busser said in a recent interview. "The systems absolutely, positively have to work."

Web Services In Lead

Speed Skating Oval

That was four years ago--practically a lifetime in terms of IT--and one area where Frascari is breaking with Busser is Web services. Busser resisted using them because, back then, the concept was too new. Atos Origin, a French services company that ran much of the IT for the 2004 Summer Games and is doing the same in Turin, designed two giant suites of applications for the Winter Olympics--the Games Management and the Information Diffusion systems--that use open standards such as XML so that Web-based apps can rapidly and easily exchange information. Games Management will handle athletes' accreditation, transportation and accommodation schedules, medical reports, and qualification information. It also enforces the protocols that keep the Olympics running on time. Information Diffusion will serve results and athlete information to 2,500 athletes and 10,000 media representatives and provide intranet access to 90,000 people associated with the Olympics.

Olympic Arch

"The importance of what we're doing is so big, you can't sleep a single minute," says Claude Philipps, Atos Origin's program director for the Winter Games, who moved to Turin the day after the Athens Games ended. "We need to deliver by any means as long as we're safe, secure, accurate, and within the budget," Philipps says. He expects the systems to produce tens of millions of results, all of which will come to television commentators' screens within milliseconds, and to journalists within 0.3 seconds of each event's end at 14 competition venues.

Technology isn't the only thing that has advanced in recent years--so has the experience of hackers and the sophistication of viruses, worms, and other forms of malicious code. During the Athens Games, Atos Origin recorded more than 5 million security alerts. Twenty alerts were deemed critical, yet a heavy focus on security at the time meant not one resulted in problems. "If you have a virus on the system that's generating results, you have to shut down the servers," says Yan Noblot, Atos Origin's information-security manager for Turin. "You have to shut down the competition, and the international federation is going to be really upset." Not to mention the viewing public.

Bobsled And Luge Run

For Turin, Atos Origin bought CA's Security Command Center for real-time monitoring of Olympic networks, Sun Microsystems products to manage 90,000 Olympic accreditations, and an array of antivirus software, firewalls, intrusion-detection systems, and port-security tools. In each case, the services firm went with what it decided was best-of-breed.

Reliability is all the more important because most of the equipment and technologies must be selected more than two years before the games to get the entire infrastructure tested and in working order by opening ceremonies. Chinese computer manufacturer Lenovo, which bought IBM's hardware business last year, provided most of the computing hardware for Turin, including desktops, laptops, and servers, all of which are battle-tested warriors. "This isn't the latest and coolest technology," says Philippe Levy, Lenovo's VP of marketing for the Olympic Games. "But then again, the Organizing Committee isn't a normal company."

Deep Freeze

Freestyle Ski Run

And the Olympic Games aren't a normal deployment. Some of Lenovo's products will spend weeks atop 6,000-foot mountains at below-zero temperatures, far from preferred computing conditions. A series of technical tests and benchmarking by Olympic organizers years ago certified that Lenovo products were reliable for the games. But since Lenovo had never worked outside China on such a large scale, early discussions focused on assuring its dedication to the Olympics. Lenovo also is looking to the Turin experience to help it prepare for the 2008 Summer Games to be held in Beijing.

Lenovo is finishing the deployment mostly waiting for the games to begin. The company has 6,000 desktops, 800 notebooks, 600 printers, and 350 servers at various sites. Every event and show that people will see at the Olympics will touch a Lenovo computer at some point. A team of 60 will support Lenovo hardware for the 16 days of competition.

Atos Origin will provide the biggest IT support team for the Olympics, managing almost 2,000 people. Terabytes of data will move back and forth to keep the games running, and the services firm has initiated 100,000 hours of testing, including running 500 what-if scenarios that include everything from auto accidents that could affect traffic patterns to full-blown computer system shut-downs. The firm has created redundancy for everything: two data centers, two networks.

In From The Cold At Turin's Main Tech Center

Atos Origin and Lenovo employees will be joined by people from several other companies working on the critical IT infrastructure of the games. All had to make similar long-term decisions on technology. Nortel Networks is providing the main telephony infrastructure, and the Organizing Committee had its mind made up about how that infrastructure should look.

This meant that despite Nortel's recommendations to go with state-of-the-art technology, the committee decided four years ago to go with traditional telephony instead of voice over IP, which it considered too immature and unreliable. The Organizing Committee "had very clear and strong ideas about how the technology infrastructure had to be designed and implemented," says Pierfrancesco Di Giuseppe, Nortel Italy's president. That didn't stop the company from including within the infrastructure voice mail, unified messaging, audio conferencing, and remote gateways to connect far-flung Olympic sites.Wow Factor

Yet the approach to IT isn't entirely staid. For all the need for sturdiness, planning, and backup, Olympic sponsors also see the games as an opportunity to showcase the convenience and wow factor of new products and brands. A Samsung-Telecom Italia Group collaboration will show the first working European demonstrations of a fledgling wireless technology, while Panasonic will provide more than 200 plasma televisions for Turin's main press center.

Turin's Stadio Comunale, Where Opening And Closing Ceremonies Will Take Place

Lenovo will give coaches and athletes a chance to use the latest tablet PCs to prepare for events and surf the Web. Peter Laviolette, hockey coach of Team USA, has begun using Lenovo's ThinkPad X41 Tablet on the bench and during training to diagram and describe plays and positioning. Video capabilities will let Laviolette freeze images during games and draw on the tablet screen over those images to demonstrate and explain his diagrams.

Samsung will provide wireless communication for the games, but you won't find its involvement in the most critical parts of the infrastructure. Atos Origin and the Organizing Committee feared possible jammed wireless signals and other security issues. "It's just a matter of classifying what's critical and what's nice to have," says Atos Origin's Philipps.

Samsung has been a wireless partner for the Olympic Games since 1998. The company says mobility will become increasingly important to smooth Olympic operations. "We're proud to be developing state-of-the-art wireless technology that's helping redefine the way the Olympic Games are managed," Kitae Lee, president of Samsung's Telecommunications Network Business, says in an E-mail.The company will outfit more than 8,000 Olympic officials with Samsung's newest mobile phone, the SGH-D600. These Bluetooth-enabled, 2-megapixel camera phones include video messaging, 384-Kbps data connectivity, an E-mail client, and voice-recognition technology. They will run Wireless Olympic Works, a private network that will let users receive current information, including results and highlight photographs, while on the move. "We developed Wireless Olympic Works with a belief that the power and flexibility of mobile devices makes them ideally suited for managing major events such as the Olympic Games," Lee says. The system was first used in Athens, but Samsung improved it for Turin to make information more accessible and automatically updated. Leading up to the games, the network is sending real-time information on the Olympic torch relay to organizers.

Snowboard Half Pipe

Also in the nice-to-have-yet-not-critical category is a demonstration of WiBro, medium-range wireless broadband and South Korea's cousin to WiMax. Telecom Italia, which is Turin's telecom provider, says its WiBro telephony 4G is a full two generations beyond the capabilities of most of today's cell phones. This demonstration will be the first time WiBro has been offered in Europe--only 50 Olympic VIPs will have access to Samsung WiBro cell phones. Even in fast-moving cars, users will get uninterrupted service of up to 20 Mbps when in range. They'll be able to hold multimedia mobile conferences and will have push-to-video service.

Cool, but not critical. Athletes may have gotten to the Olympics by not playing it safe, pushing themselves to what they thought were their limits and then pushing some more. But the risk-taking will be left to them. When four years of anticipation end in 16 crucial days in February, IT is the one area where safety and stability lead to victory.

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