Wiring the Beijing Olympics

By Elizabeth Millard Print this article Print

With 42 events in seven different cities, the trick to keeping the Games running with state-of-the-art technology is a lot of hard work and testing to make it look seamless and perform well.


To call the upcoming Olympic Games a daunting IT challenge is like saying swimming the Atlantic might require some effort. Not only are there numerous software and hardware vendors, but the results have to be delivered in real-time over the Web, and the widespread use of mobile devices since the last Games have driven demand for quickly-updated information.

"A key challenge that we face is to manage the complexity of such a big project with so many components," says Jeremy Hore, Chief Technology Integrator for Paris-based Atos Origin, which has been working with the Beijing Organizing Committee and a consortium of technology providers to design, implement, and operate the Games IT systems. The firm was also responsible for implementing IT at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

The systems, called "information diffusion systems," have been built to distribute real-time competition results and employ about 10,000 PCs, a thousand servers, and more than a thousand network devices. Not only will the systems cover the competition venues, but also include coverage from seven cities across China, Hore notes, and the whole shebang requires more than 50 different software applications.

In terms of hardware, a major contributor is Lenovo, which will provide more than 20,000 pieces of computing equipment, including approximately 700 servers, 800 notebook printers, and 2,000 desktop printers. The company will also supply 10,000 flat-panel displays. According to Leon Xie, Lenovo's Director of Olympic Sponsorship and Technology.

one of the most impressive aspects of the effort is not just its breadth, but how much has to be built from the ground up. Xie notes that the company is building the "entire computer equipment apparatus" from scratch, and retooling legacy equipment to meet the demands of the Games.

Xie notes that the most demanding application, the Games Management System, includes accreditation, staffing and scheduling, transportation, and qualifications. "It will process, store, and make available a staggering amount of data," he says.

With the information diffusion systems, about 50 percent is reused from the last Olympics, Hore notes, so they don't have to start from the beginning, but that still means that there must be a great deal of new functionality and technology.

Within the systems, though, are many applications that have been proven in their industries, and have a reputation as being reliable technologies. One example is ClickSoftware, a workforce management tool used to manage hundreds of telecommunication technicians during the Games.

"The Olympics is all about managing people smoothly, and to make sure the networks are operating right," says Moshe BenBassat, ClickSoftware's CEO. "The time is very intense, and you have to deliver right away, so understanding who is going to go where to fix a problem is a critical issue."

A particularly thorny challenge for implementation of so much tech is that it can be rolled out over months, but still has to perform, as Xie says, "literally overnight." Basically, when the Games begin, the "on" switch is flipped for information diffusion, and Hore, Xie, and others will likely just hold their breath and hope for the best.

However, they're not exactly working on faith. Extensive testing has been a priority, Hore says, and The Beijing Organizing Committee has provided an Integration Lab space that's 1,300 square meters, with 50 testing cells that allow technicians to test systems on a sport-by-sport basis.

Testing is particularly important given two new major aspects for these Games compared to others: more data, and use of Open Source.

"The number of sports has not really increased from Athens, but the amount of results data that will be produced is much larger," says Hore. "This is because there will be more real-time sports statistics, so we have to ensure that our architecture and systems can support this expected load. To achieve this, we perform hundreds of thousands of hours of testing."

The Atos Origin team has a much more comprehensive test plan for the 2008 Games than in the past, he notes.

Also, for the first time, open source technology will be part of the software plan, and Hore says the IT team is very happy with the results.

"We still use other software platforms from the traditional software vendors as part of the overall system," Hore says. "But including open source has resulted in lower costs for the Games with a very high level of performance." He adds that in subsequent Olympics, it's likely that Open Source use will be expanded further.

Hore notes that with the rise of mobile devices, the demand for Web-delivered video, and the popularity of the Games, the push toward implementing cutting-edge strategies, hardware, and software should be just as much of a constant as the games themselves.

And the biggest sign of success that all these tens of thousands of components are working properly is that the experience will be flawless for viewers who are watching jumbo screens from their stadium seats, Web video from their couches, or results postings from their PDAs.

"At every Olympics, you have four years of cultural and technological change since the last Games," says BenBassat. "So you do everything you can to make it perfect for this one brief moment in time."

This article was originally published on 2008-03-05
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