Olympic Feats: Behind-the-Scenes Engineering at London’s Summer Games

As the world’s greatest athletes prepare for glory on the unrivaled stage of the summer Olympic Games in London, one group of participants is hoping not to be noticed at all.

The international team providing technology services for the largest sporting event on earth is in the months-long testing stages of a system it’s taken four years to build, but which will be in use for only 17 days.

It’s not rehearsing for the thrill of victory. It’s practicing for the agony of defeat—simulating every kind of potential problem, in one of the most extensive IT-testing programs in history, to avoid the massive embarrassment of failure.

“That’s every VP of marketing, every CIO’s nightmare,” says Robert Eastman, a software and technology analyst at Calyptus Consulting. “You don’t want anyone to notice you. Ideally what you want to be is wallpaper.”

It takes a mind-boggling amount of work to be wallpaper at the Olympics.

British Telecom, the official communications sponsor, has called the games the company’s most complex logistical peacetime challenge ever. While they’re under way, in late July and early August, BT expects some 6GB of information per second to flow across its networks—the equivalent of all of Wikipedia every five seconds.

Four billion people will be tuning in on television to watch 10,500 athletes compete in 300 events in 26 sports at 36 venues. Another billion are expected to visit the official website. There are 80,000 voice and data outlets plus 10,000 TVs and a 40-channel closed-circuit television network, connected by 2,800 miles of telecommunications cables.

An army of 5,380 technology staff and volunteers will be wired into this vast and complex system to provide timing, scoring, Internet access, transportation and ticketing logistics, graphics, accreditation, mobile calling, and other services.

Among them is a team of “technical rehearsal officers,” whose sole job is to test the whole thing.

And test it.

And test it again.

“There is only one opportunity to make it work, and it’s in real-time, with billions of people watching,” says Claudio Da Rold, an analyst at Gartner Research who has studied the system.

The testing started last year, and resumed in March. Another technical rehearsal comes in May, simulating the games themselves, with various surprises. In all, there’s more than 200,000 hours of testing built into the schedule.

“They’re practicing failures,” Eastman says—and looking for weaknesses that might identify a need for backup equipment. “There’s not going to be any downtime allowed. The Olympics is going to have something like one-to-one sparing. If something goes down, there’s going to be a spare immediately available.”

And no wonder. Not only will the world be watching; the system consists of component parts from international suppliers across cultures and languages. BT is the U.K. principal IT contractor, Atos has its major event team based in Spain. Partner Cisco’s network-support center is in the U.S., Samsung in Korea, Acer in Taiwan, Panasonic in Japan. The Olympics’ software developers are in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and elsewhere.

Nor have previous Olympics all gone smoothly. The computer system at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta was late in delivering results from the competition venues, for example; the same thing happened at the Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010. And while none appeared to have succeeded, even the widely lauded 2008 Beijing Olympics had to fend off an estimated 500 cyber attacks.

Technology has advanced considerably since the 2008 games, with the advent of intelligent networks, big-data analytics, and cloud computing. But, also to help keep things running smoothly, the Olympics is playing things safe.

“That’s an irony in some sense,” Eastman says. “If you’re one of these many IT suppliers, the fact is you’re probably not going to go to far out on a limb. You’ll stick to the tried and true.”

In fact, the games are using 2010 technology. That’s when the system was built and the PCs and servers purchased and stockpiled in a warehouse. And that’s what the Olympics has been using to rehearse.

“We tested on a 2010 PC, so that is what we’ll be rolling out in 2012,” Gerry Pennell, the games’ CIO, told analysts.

Now, while the Olympics themselves might have been thoroughly vetted, analysts are warning that the traffic it creates might affect other IT systems.

They expect the games to consume even more mobile bandwidth data usage than last year’s World Cup, which drove up web-browsing traffic by 35 percent during the matches and hits on YouTube by 32 percent on the days after.

“The Olympics threaten to stress networks like never before,” says Thierry Grenot, chief technology officer of Ipanema Technologies.

But whether or not all goes well, the Olympic IT team faces another big date in November. That’s when they’ll be debriefing their counterparts who have started working on the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.

Photo: Ben Sutherland on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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