Why IBM's all set to serve up an ace

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You may wonder where technology plays a role at Wimbledon, as you watch the players hit a ball back and forth on a court surrounded by ball boys and line judges in a tournament that reeks of tradition.

Subtly, over the last decade, technology has become part of that tradition and without the numerous laptops and servers there would be few flash statistics, no website to tap into and estimating demand for strawberries and cream would be a matter of pure guesswork.

The demands of acting as an information technology partner to the Wimbledon tennis tournament are far from simple and include being able to run the official website, and gather the data to give to the world's media and print the tickets.

The facts and figures that usually get the attention apart from the players' winning margins are the number of strawberries and cream consumed, about two-and-half tons last year. But equally as impressive is the amount of traffic going through the website, with more than two million visitors expected this year, and the number of different systems running, collecting and transmitting data around the world during the Championships. There are seven operating systems, 24 separate applications and 18 different networks all being harnessed to get information out to the spectators, TV viewers and web surfers.

All of that takes a lot of people. Each of the show courts, of which there are seven, has a couple of staff tapping away at keypads producing a stroke-by-stroke transcript of each game; four courts have a radar gun measuring the speed of serve, which needs an operator; and at kiosks around Wimbledon there are staff helping spectators get information about players and the order of play.

Hidden from the public gaze near Centre Court, in the basement of the broadcasting centre, the tournament's official IT supplier, IBM, has its operations room and internet room, where a further 30 people are working to keep the data flowing to the broadcasters and the Web.

An international flavour to the operation is given by the four server farms in the US which are used to volley web traffic back and forth to balance demand and avoid crashes. The total number of IBM staff working on the tournament tops 200.

For a spectator visiting Wimbledon, their brush with technology starts before they arrive because all tickets are printed with a barcode that means the system knows who they are. On getting to the Championship, there are several large screens displaying statistical information about games being played. Inside the court, the scoreboard will be updated by the IBM-supported network.

For those who cannot get to Wimbledon, the main way of keeping up with events will be through television and the Web. All of the BBC's commentators are given statistics straight from IBM that the broadcaster can then flash up on the screen to show the viewing nation.

However, where things are changing the most in technological terms is in keeping up with the demands of the Web audience.

"We were the first official sports website in 1995 with the Wimbledon championships. The internet wasn't even on the radar then, but now it is firmly here and the club is considering how we are sure the right audiences are being reached through the right medium," says John Taylor, Wimbledon project director at IBM.

This year, the website (www.wimbledon. org) offers six interactive cameras, a desktop scoreboard and an array of video clips of the tournament past and present.

IBM has been the technical supplier to the Wimbledon championships for 10 years. The humble beginnings of using a server with a few PCs have been replaced by an operation that takes the best part of a year to plan, and which involves a vast amount of kit. Plans are already under way for the 2003 tournament because IBM enjoys the relative security of being in the middle of a four-year contract with the All England Lawn Tennis Club.

Unlike most other major sporting events, being the official IT supplier to Wimbledon is not a position shared by a group of companies. Apart from the drinks sipped during breaks in the sets, the Slazenger name on the referee's chair and IBM's brand on the radars, you would be hard pushed to find many logos on a Wimbledon court. The most branding is on the players themselves.

"The club has very few official suppliers, whereas other events may have a hundred, with different partner leagues. The club doesn't have that, they just have official suppliers and that is it," says Taylor.

To stay an official supplier sounds simple enough: just deliver value and reliability. But the sheer number of people who have to be kept happy makes it complicated. Jeff Lucas, IT director of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, believes that technology should enhance the experience of Wimbledon for those viewing and working at the tournament.

"The benefits gained from the diverse IT systems are significant, enhancing the event for the players, spectators, officials, the world's media and our Web audience," he says.

Despite all of the technology, Wimbledon is about tennis and the stars of the fortnight are not the laptops and servers but the men and women in white slugging it out on the grass courts in SW19.

"The tournament depends on players, and you can have the best technology but without the players you don't have a tournament, which is why we have spent a lot of time developing things for them," adds Taylor.

All of those playing on Centre Court and Court One are given a 32-page statistical report on their performance by IBM, which can be used to identify some success even in the worst defeat. All of the other winners also get a report.

The players may well have another reason to be thankful for technology. This year, a total of £8m in prize money is being given out, and as the winner of the men's final picks up his winning cheque of £500,000 he can be grateful to an IBM system for printing it out.