How Sydney got wired for sport

The 1996 Atlanta Olympics were a disaster for IBM. But this time Big Blue is leaving nothing to chance.
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The Independent Online

When the Olympic flame is lit in Sydney this Friday, it's not just athletes that will be facing the supreme challenge. Behind the scenes, teams of IT professionals will be monitoring the systems that will make this the most wired sporting event in history.

When the Olympic flame is lit in Sydney this Friday, it's not just athletes that will be facing the supreme challenge. Behind the scenes, teams of IT professionals will be monitoring the systems that will make this the most wired sporting event in history.

Ever since Juan Antonio Samaranch, the International Olympic Committee president, anointed Sydney as host of the 2000 games, work has been under way on everything from voice and data networks to satellite video feeds, radio systems and web servers.

For IBM, the primary IT supplier, Sydney preparations have been overshadowed by the massive problems that occurred during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. At that event, despite confident predictions and million-dollar budgets, IBM's games results system failed to perform, leaving many media outlets and the public without accurate information.

At times, the system's performance was so bad that news organisations resorted to human runners to get results from Games venues to newsrooms. However, IBM is convinced that Sydney will be better - much better. A team of more than 500 people will monitor critical systems, including the website which is expected to become the busiest destination on the internet during the Games. Should any problems arise, backup equipment will kick in, ensuring hassle-free access to the world's most watched sporting event.

IBM's Olympic IT team project manager, Vicki Regan, said the company had learned a lot since Atlanta and had put much of this knowledge into practice during the Winter Olympic Games in Nagano in 1998. "We're using very tested-and-tried technologies, but the way we implement them is different for the very simple reason of the scope and scale of the Games," she said.

To ensure results and other information is available instantly to millions of internet users around the world, IBM has established a global network of massive caching centres linked using sophisticated load-balancing technology. Designed to cope with an expected traffic level of around one billion page views, the infrastructure is larger than any previously used for a sporting event.

Laurie Courage, IBM internet strategies and web events director, said Games information would be replicated at each cache centre. This would ensure acceptable response times were maintained and provide back-up in the event of failure.

"We have four centres - one in Australia and three in the United States, which is where we expect the most traffic to originate," she said. IBM is reluctant to divulge many details about its worldwide links, for fear of orchestrated attacks, but it is confident that capacity will be sufficient to meet demand. As well as all the gamesresults, the official Olympics website incorporates live webcams placed at various venues, three-dimensional venue walk-throughs, historical records and a merchandise and ticket shop. "It's all about allowing people to be virtual spectators at the Games," Courage said.

Working alongside IBM for the past six years has been Australia's national telecommunications company, Telstra. Telstra has established a complete communications infrastructure covering all Olympic sites, with high-capacity links to the outside world. Dubbed the Millennium Network, it comprises fixed, mobile and radio networks, as well as a series of high-speed fibre optic rings that circle Sydney, linking all 35 Olympic venues and a central control room.

"The most significant thing for us is that we have done the entire job ourselves," said Gerry Moriarty, Telstra managing director. "The Atlanta Olympics had been served by five carriers, causing unnecessary complexity and delay."

Telstra has installed a sophisticated monitoring system that will alert engineers to any problems on the entire network during the Games. Linked to a mapping application, the system can pinpoint cable breaks or malfunctioning equipment to within a few metres.

The role of Telstra's network is particularly critical as it will carry all video and audio coverage to audiences around the globe. The company has also constructed what has become the densest mobile network anywhere on the planet, designed to cope with more than 600,000 extra users.

In particularly busy areas, such as the Olympic Stadium and the central city area, a new technology will be used that allows multiple callers to share a single frequency channel.

"When you consider that there will be a crowd of more than 100,000 people in the stadium, many of whom will be carrying phones, you quickly realise there won't be enough capacity for them all," said John Hunter, Telstra Olympics manager.

He said that Telstra engineers had developed a system that used directional antennae to focus on different sections of the crowd. The antenna would be installed on the curved roof of the stadium and focused to provide coverage to small sections of the crowd. A second antenna, on the other side of the stadium, would provide coverage to another area, using the same frequency.

"Using this technique we can significantly increase the number of calls that can be made from the stadium at one time," Hunter said. Telstra also plans to use another technology, called dynamic configuration, to allow mobile capacity to be shifted to different parts of the city as crowds moved.

"At the end of an event, for example, capacity can be shifted from the stadium to walkways and train stations to maintain coverage," said Hunter. "This allows us to make the most of the limited frequency resources that exist." Both GSM and CDMA mobile networks will be available for Games visitors. Telstra has also constructed a radio network to be used by organisers and security staff at all venues.

Also involved in designing and building the infrastructure for the Sydney Games have been other IT partners including Fuji Xerox, Samsung and Swatch. Despite it being the most wired games ever conducted, Fuji Xerox has been busy installing a printing infrastructure covering all sites. It is anticipated that during the 17 days of competition, more than 30 million pages will be printed.

All content will be extracted from the IBM results system and fed to printers as required. "One of the issues is that you want to print enough to meet demand but you don't want to print too much," said Vince Schaeffer, Fuji Xerox Australia Olympic operations manager.

Swiss watch company Swatch has installed timing equipment at each venue that feeds information directly into the IBM results computers. All systems have undergone rigorous testing and back-ups are in place to ensure reliability.

Once the flame is extinguished on 1 October, much of the infrastructure will be removed. The result of six years of toil will - it is hoped - have done its job.