Forget the footie, check out the technology

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The Independent Culture
Thanks to a world-class, hi-tech infrastructure, football fans around the world will be able to follow all the action during France 98 as never before.

Three years ago, a company was set up that will, by the middle of next month, have grown from zero to 15,000 employees and will serve 37 billion customers, 175 million a day on its Web site alone. It will see 2.5 million customers come through its doors in a 33-day period. And it will then, at the height of its success, shut up shop for ever.

That is exactly the task that the Comite Francais d'Organisation de la Coupe du Monde (CFO) embarked upon three years ago, when it began to organise possibly the largest event this century: World Cup 98. To realise such a daunting plan, it was going to need all the technical prowess of the world's leading information technology suppliers to see it through. Better still, it was going to get them to do it for free: the main partners would provide all their services in return for the privilege of using the France 98 logo and, presumably, a pretty spectacular branding opportunity to the whole planet.

The project is expected to cost the CFO about Fr250m. The main technology partners are EDS as systems integrator, Hewlett Packard as hardware supplier, France Telecom as telecoms supplier and Sybase as software supplier.

Together they have managed to design, implement and, it is hoped, run one of the most sophisticated and far-reaching technical feats ever.

The hurdles began almost as soon as the contracts were signed. The CFO wanted to start selling tickets 18 months in advance of the competition itself - half of its revenue will come from ticket sales, so that made sense. The problem was that the stadiums hadn't completed restoration and, in the case of the Stade de France in Paris, had not even been built yet.

"Our solution was to build virtual stadiums," says Robin Blanchard, European sports marketing manager for EDS. The team then designed a ticketing system - "though not the distribution policy", she hastily adds - that allowed the CFO to sell tickets before the stadiums were even ready. In the end, the virtual reality stadiums have proved to be useful for a great deal more than mere seat allocation: they are also used for crowd control, traffic simulations and anything else to do with the areas around the events.

In terms of size or duration, this was not a particularly special project for these companies. The installation of some 2,000 PCs, 500 printers and 100 servers is only a medium-sized project. What was unusual was the fact that the CFO did not take control of the stadiums until about a week ago. For all the years of planning that the IT teams had, they still had only a week and a half to install all the equipment. And the installation will have to be struck after the finals almost as quickly.

Uppermost in the project team's mind is the 1994 Atlanta Olympics. IBM, the IT supplier at that event, was heavily criticised for problems with the system it had deployed. Unfortunately for IBM, most of the problems affected the provision of information to the media.

Dan Cooper, EDS's senior project manager for France 98, says: "Atlanta showed what happened when technology goes wrong. Something that should enhance the planning experience in fact made it worse. Our primary objective is to go unnoticed. If we get all our planning done upfront, then, when the games are on, we get to watch TV."

Katey Kennedy, World Cup marketing manager at HP, highlights IBM's problem. "IBM had tested each of its system's components but didn't really test the system as a whole." Things will be different at France 98. With last June's mini-international tournament, Le Tournoi, and various friendlies to test it on, Kennedy is convinced that the system is battle-ready.

That includes crisis and catastrophe planning. Everything from hackers to terrorist attack - including power failures - has been planned for. Uninterruptible power supplies, for example, provided by APC, a world leader in this technology, protect the whole system from power shortages. Rodger B Dowdell Jnr, APC's president and CEO, claims that nearly half of all data loss and hardware damage incidents result from power-related problems, so "reliable power protection is essential for mission-critical processes such as those associated with the 1998 World Cup".

If there's one aspect of all the technology behind the World Cup that most people will see, it's the official Web site (see Web sites on page 6). The site is already enormously popular, attracting 7 million visitors a day. That's a drop in the cyberocean compared with the hits expected during the tournament itself. Todd Oken, EDS's Internet project manager, expects an average of 25 to 50 million hits a day during the tournament, peaking at up to 100 million. "However, we're able to cope with 175 million hits a day," he says.

And the information that the world will find on the Web site will, in the main, be exactly the same information that the 10,000 journalists covering the competition will get, on a separate, secure intranet. Apart from items such as games and prizes on the Web site, and match replays on the intranet, all the details will come from the same source. Unfortunately, the CFO did not buy the Internet audio and video rights to the broadcasts, so you'll be able to follow coverage only on TV or radio. However, scores and news will be updated constantly on the site, so you will be able to get a lot more information there.

As part of the site, the team has set up what could turn out to be one of the largest online commerce sites the Web has yet seen. For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, fans around the world can purchase any official World Cup merchandise. Launched in March, it has already seen over 100,000 sales.

All the plans are laid. In fact, the technology was "frozen" last December. "Does that mean that you won't be upgrading all the PCs to Windows 98 when it launches on 25 June, in the middle of the tournament?" I asked Kennedy. "I don't think that would be a very wise move, do you?" Oh, well. Bill Gates will probably survive.

The only thing left to find out is how it will all work. As a rule, if you hear about technology it has not done its job, which is to remain invisible and make everything around it run smoothly.

So, if you do hear about it again, it will probably be bad news for someone.