Delivering the IT infrastructure for the Torino Winter Olympics

For Claude Philipps, programme director for the Torino 2006 Winter Olympics at systems integrator Atos Origin, it is ‘do-or-die’ time. From the opening ceremony on 10 February to the close of the event 16 days later, the IT infrastructure underpinning the Games – built and managed by Philipps and a team that will swell to 2,500 (including 1,000 volunteers) – needs to work without a hitch. “With a high-profile event like this, you get no second chances,” says Philipps.

Every Olympic Games represents a massive exercise in IT risk management, says Philipps. Aside from the obvious fact that the deadline is set in stone, the systems have to deliver at all levels – in terms of reliability, performance, availability, accuracy – which means ensuring that every risk is mitigated.

That mammoth exercise provides some valuable lessons for other organisations working on a ‘big bang’ IT launch – whether it is the Inland Revenue dealing with the annual surge of last minute online returns, a travel company launching its summer flight schedule or a web retailer in the final run up to Christmas.

As in those cases, Torino is not a one-off. Atos’s 10 year contract with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) covers every Olympics event from Salt Lake City 2002 and Athens 2004 through to London in 2012, making it the largest sports-related IT deal in the world.

That establishes some kind of continuity: when designing the architecture for each event, Atos Origin employees put a major emphasis on the process of transferring the knowledge gained from one Olympics onto the next.

But the IT architecture involved changes each time, says Philipps, depending on which other technology companies are involved as sponsors of the Olympic Games.

For Torino, that infrastructure is underpinned by two main systems designed and built by Atos Origin: the Information Diffusion System (IDS), responsible for relaying results and contestant information to 2,500 athletes and 10,000 media representatives during the Games; and second, the Games Management Systems (GMS), a suite of applications providing athlete accreditation, hosting transportation and accommodation schedules and managing medical reports.

To mitigate the risks involved, Atos Origin places exacting demands on those sponsors. For Torino the partners include Lenovo (PCs, notebooks, servers and printers), Samsung (wireless communications) and Panasonic (audiovisual technologies). “It is one of our policies that we don’t use newly launched equipment. Sponsors can’t insist we use their newest releases or the latest models of their products to suit their own marketing agendas. The technology must be really mature, really tried-and-tested,” he says.

Massive systems redundancy has been built into that architecture. Not only is each mission-critical server replicated for failover at the Main Technology Centre (MTC), but the entire MTC is replicated on a different site some distance away. At earthquake-prone Athens in 2004, for example, a secondary site was positioned 200 kilometres away from the MTC. (For security reasons, the exact locations of these sites are kept a closely guarded secret.) The result: four instances of every mission-critical server.

IT security is also paramount, since such a high-profile, global event inevitably attracts the attention of miscreants from around the world. “Security is built into the infrastructure from the outset. We keep the Games networks completely private and separate from the public Internet and all IT systems are equipped with a range of security tools: anti-virus software, firewalls, intrusion detection systems, port security and other administration tools,” says Philipps.

During the 16 days of competition in Athens in 2004, he says, more than 5 million IT security alerts were recorded. Of these, 425 were serious and 20 critical. “The IT team was able to respond fast to all the critical alerts and prevent unauthorised access,” he reports.

Aside from such precautions, the system has been put through a rigorous testing programme. In the case of Torino 2006, around 100,000 man-hours were spent over a period of two and a half years, ensuring that every potential point of IT failure within the architecture was thoroughly examined and addressed.

Much of that work is pretty routine: ironing out software bugs, tweaking network connections and simulating massive server loads, says Phillips.

But the culmination of testing was far more sophisticated — two separate, week-long technical rehearsals involving the entire IT operations team, led by 26 Technical Rehearsal Officials from the Torino 2005 Organising Committee (TOROC) and quality assurance staff from Atos Origin. The first rehearsal was held 100 days before the opening ceremony; the second, 50 days beforehand. During these rehearsals, the IT operations team was presented with over 500 different ‘what-if’ scenarios, ranging from hardware failure, security attacks, and power outages, to staffing issues, competition rescheduling and the disqualification of athletes.

These were scoped out in secret by an outside team, explains Philipps, which then monitored the efficiency of the IT operations team in responding to them.

“For around two-thirds of the IT operations team, Torino was their first Olympics and we had to be absolutely sure that they could all hold up under stressful situations. Many of the scenarios were run in parallel in order to push staff to their absolute limits. That gave us a good indication of where more training was needed, where policies and procedures needed rethinking and where staff ought to be reassigned with different responsibilities.”

Testing took place across 23 venues, both in the city and in the ski resorts to the north of Turin, and involved all the 15 sports. Representatives from the media also participated in the trial, using the Atos Origin applications just as they would do during the Games.

A single philosophy guided the entire process, says Philipps. “The Olympics is about athletes, not IT. While the Games relies on IT for its overall success, it is critical that IT remains behind the scenes. That puts a lot of pressure on us, but it is necessary pressure – IT failure will not be forgiven and cannot be allowed.”

Torino Winter Olympics IT mountain 

7 sports (15 disciplines, 84 events)
28 venues (14 for competition)
2,500 athletes

2,500 IT staff
(including 1,000 volunteers)
5,000 PCs
385 servers
1,800 results terminals
700 printers

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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