London 2012 IT: No Second Chances

by Jason Stamper| 27 May 2009

15,000 athletes, 22,000 journalists, 70,000 volunteers and 94 Olympic venues. 3,500 technology specialists, 8,000 computers, a fixed deadline and the world watching. What could possibly go wrong? Jason Stamper reports.

There are some projects that are large, complex, and critical to the continued success of the organisation. Then there is the Olympics IT project. It’s not only massive, incredibly complex and vital to the success of the Games. It also has a fixed deadline, and the software and systems support an event that will be watched by over 2 billion people worldwide. Events must be beamed to the world’s media within half a second of them happening. No pressure, then.

Thankfully, Atos Origin, which is the official Worldwide IT Partner of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has found in Michelle Hyron what you might call ‘a safe pair of hands’. Hyron is Atos Origin’s chief integrator for the London 2012 Olympic Games, while it will be the sixth games at which Atos Origin is the official Worldwide IT Partner.

With such a complex and high-profile project, it makes sense to keep risks to a minimum, which is surely why Atos Origin is again relying on Hyron. She was operations manager for the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing and systems integration manager for the Athens 2004 Olympic Summer Games. Her experience of various Olympic projects goes back to 1999. Before that, she served as project manager for the Atos Origin Energy Division in Grenoble, France, where she was part of the team that delivered the world’s first computerized nuclear plant control system.

Hyron is in no doubt about just what makes the Olympics IT project so challenging.

Fixed deadlines

“There is a fixed deadline – the date of the opening ceremony has already been chosen and we have to be fully ready by that date,” she told CBR in an exclusive interview last month. “It’s a project where there are no second chances. You have to be completely ready. The Games themselves are actually pretty short – around two weeks – but the IT has to be completely right for those two weeks because the eyes of the world are on you.”

Atos Origin is not the only technology company involved in the London 2012 Olympics. But its role is to help to bring together all of the technology partners to ensure that the various elements – hardware, software, networking – work together. “There are multiple players, multiple partners,” says Hyron. “We build a team that will work towards the same goal to ensure we are ready.”

Some of the technology partners are the same as for the Beijing Olympics, while others change from one Games to the next. BT is a new Olympics partner for London 2012, for example.

Asked about how the London 2012 IT project takes shape, Hyron explains that it kicked off officially on November 24 last year. Most of this year will be spent planning, Hyron says: “2009 is the year of strategy, and architecture design. The team start to work on the architecture and do a gap analysis. The team grows slowly in 2009, then in 2010 it starts to gather pace more quickly, and we will have people that will be coming back from the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics to join the team on London 2012.

“By 2012 the team will be up to about 120 people, but during the Games themselves we will have around 400 staff involved. Across all of the technology partners there will be approximately 3,000 in the IT team.”

Legacy planning

The planning for London 2012 has certainly started early enough. While the media has – some would say justifiably given the current economic climate – focused predominantly on how much the games will cost and by how much they are going to exceed the original estimates, the International Olympic Committee has so far been positive about the London 2012 organisers.

In mid-2006 the IOC praised organisers for their preparations. Denis Oswald, the head of the IOC's coordination commission, said he was pleased with all levels of planning and hailed the long-term legacy aspects as “a model” for future host cities.

“Two years after London got the games, we are impressed by the level of detail in the preparation,” Oswald said. “London is on track and on time.”

Oswald said London was further ahead in planning five years out from the games than any other recent host city. His 15-member inspection team reviewed every aspect of London's preparations, including venue construction, sport, staffing, media and technology. He also said London's ambitious legacy plans were as promised when it won the bid in July 2005.

“This legacy is very important,” he said. “We really consider that London will be a model for a future host city of the Olympic Games as far as legacy is concerned.”

Of course it is a 500-acre East End site that will be transformed into the Olympic Park, which as well as being the hub of the games, will also become one of the largest urban parks in Europe.

After 2012, four major sports venues will remain -- the main stadium, which will be reduced in seating capacity from 80,000 to 25,000; an aquatics centre, velodrome and an indoor multi-sport centre. The Olympic village will be turned into housing.

Sustainability is a word that Atos Origin has been keen to use with regards its IT project for 2012, too. Early last month the company announced that technology will play a critical role in two areas at the London 2012 Olympic Games: improved information access and environmental sustainability.

Processing data quickly and securely

In Beijing, Atos Origin securely processed 60% more competition data than in Athens -- 1.5 million messages all told. As audiences worldwide expect more detailed and colourful information to be delivered, as it happens, to an increasingly complex network of channels, this demand is expected to increase even further by London 2012.  IT will help to ensure that these huge volumes of data can be processed and delivered on demand to commentators, journalists, TV viewers and website visitors.

As for sustainability, the company said it is working with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) to evaluate the use of new technologies, such as virtualisation, so that the London 2012 Games use less energy and hardware than in Beijing.

Remote INFO, a service which provides access to the London 2012 intranet could also be used to help reduce the seven million sheets of paper that were printed in Beijing, by providing the competition schedules and results directly to journalists’ computers.

“London 2012 will leverage a number of technology innovations to improve access to information and deliver the most sustainable Olympic Games yet,” says Hyron. “For the first time, we will implement a new solution, designed together with the IOC  – the Olympic Data Feed -- to consolidate all data feeds to the newswires, websites and London 2012 intranet into a single solution to provide a more sustainable and efficient service.

“We are expecting to increase access to the Commentator Information Systems from outside the host city, enabling journalists to access the rich information from the offices in their home countries to reduce costs and the carbon footprint.”

As well as Remote INFO which provides results, schedules, athlete biographies and more to journalists, athletes, the IOC and so on, Atos also handles all of the backoffice applications like workforce management.

Real-time results

Perhaps the most high-profile aspect though of Atos’ work is the integration of the results systems: “We have to integrate all of the systems necessary for real-time results provision,” says Hyron, “and that means both results in the Olympic venues themselves as well as those broadcast around the world.”

Atos specifies the equipment needed to support all of these systems, including for example around 8,000 computers, 1,000 of which will be servers. These are all provisioned and configured way in advance of the Games themselves, of course.

One innovation that Atos first used in Beijing was the use of a central Equipment Deployment Centre, where all of the necessary technology partners’ kit is configured and tested. “Doing this centrally instead of on-site at the various venues was found to save time and money, and ensure better quality equipment in the field,” says Hyron.

Hyron notes that Atos Origin will not be starting from scratch with the architecture and planning for London 2012, since this is the sixth Games that it has been official integration partner for. “We have an existing architecture that we know works,” she says, “but we do need to change a lot of the specifications to suit each particular Games. There are also different partners which might have a bearing on that architecture.”

So given the complexity of the project, does Hyron and her team use some kind of sophisticated project management or enterprise architecture tools? Not at all – it’s Microsoft Word and Visio right the way down the line. “We need to share documentation with technology partners and Word and Visio are widely used,” says Hyron.

Although the IT architecture has not yet been defined, Hyron was not overly effusive about the possibility of there being much in the way of open source software in the mix: “We will probably use open source for some of the operational tools like e-learning, but as an operating system? No. I think if you target open source carefully as to when and where you use it, it is possible. Will it be considered? Yes. It’s not a definite no-no. But we will also make sure that we do not take any risk. On a project like this, risk is not something you want.”

Backup

There is a primary data centre as well as a secondary centre in case of disaster. There is a Technical Operations Centre (TOC) with 120 staff who monitor the systems 24x7 during the Games themselves, but this is fully up-to-speed many weeks in advance of the opening ceremony, just in case. All technology partners will be gathered in the TOC – the nerve centre of the IT systems supporting the Games. Where is this nerve centre? “The organising committee prefer not to publish such details,” Hyron says.

“Security is very high on the agenda,” says Hyron, “and we are also in charge of security for the Games, including not just protection of the IT systems from hacking but also the accreditation system which gives different people – athletes, journalists, volunteers – different rights to access different zones within the Games venues.”

What kind of security technologies are deployed? “We use different tools and techniques at different levels – intrusion detection; web and content filtering and other tools to prevent anyone gaining access to the systems,” is all Hyron will reveal, and rightly so. While London 2012 will be about the world’s best athletes striving to achieve their dream and come home with a medal (or 11 if you happen to be Michael Phelps), Hyron and her team are keen to ensure that hackers and their ilk don’t have anything to aim for.

There may be 1,224 days to go before London 2012, but Hyron and her team are not wasting any time getting their preparations underway. As she says, the date of the opening ceremony has already been chosen.

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