Feature

IT in Olympic proportions

The team responsible for the IT for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games faces a mammoth challenge, not least to meet the IOC's goal of spending less on IT than at previous games. Ross Bentley talks to Claude Philipps, chief integrator for the Athens games

It is just over 10 months until the Olympic flame will again be lit, and the athletes competing in Athens are starting to step up their training regimes. The IT manager responsible for the IT infrastructure for the games, however, has been preparing since early in 2001.

"We were here before the construction of the stadia started to make sure the technology interfaced with the buildings and we will be the last to leave after we have rolled up all the cable and packed away the equipment," says Claude Philipps, chief integrator with IT services company SchlumbergerSema.

Philipps is overseeing the project and despite rumours that preparations for the event are behind schedule, he is confident that the IT side will be ready for the starter's pistol well ahead of schedule.

"All the gossip about preparations being behind are just that, gossip," says the 53-year-old Frenchman. "All the big bits of technology are in place. We have planned well ahead for this project and have been working to a detailed strategy of what we need to have, where and when.

"Because of the high-profile nature of the event, failure is not an option and we have an immovable deadline. We cannot rely on penalty clauses. We have to be ready for the start date."

Philipps is responsible for an operation of truly Olympian proportions. The games' computer network encompasses 60 venues around the Greek capital and incorporates 450 Unix servers, 450 Windows boxes, 10,000 PCs and 400 laptops.

The 300-strong IT team embodies the spirit of the games with members hailing from 22 different countries. Eventually the number of IT staff will swell to more than 1,300 as volunteers join the team for the duration of the 17-day event in August.

Despite the challenge facing Philipps he says the technology will not be out of the ordinary. With the world watching, this is not the time to be experimenting with sexy technology. "We are using only robust, tested products - this is no time to showcase new technology," he says.

SchlumbergerSema is the lead technology sponsor for Athens 2004 and the company is working with a number of best-of-breed suppliers to complete the infrastructure.

The Swatch Group is responsible for all the timing and results mechanisms, Sun Microsystems and Dell are providing hardware and software and the networks equipment comes from Cisco.

Xerox is supplying the printers, and local Greek operator OTE is providing support for the telecoms side of the operation.

With so many vested interests involved Philipps has worked to ensure an atmosphere of openness exists among the disparate members of the team. "Everything is on the table - there are no secrets," he says.

"We all work in a large open office and share all our issues. We have a feeling that we are all working towards one cause."

As well as managing the other suppliers, SchlumbergerSema has been responsible for developing the critical internet-based applications that make up the games management system. These have been developed over the past three years at SchlumbergerSema's European headquarters in Spain.

The applications include software to gather results and broadcast them through the different media, both online and in printed form.

Then there is a tool to manage the accommodation bookings for the 10,500 athletes competing in the games as well as an application to organise the huge transportation operation required to ferry participants to and from the sporting arenas.

Another application has been developed to register all the competitors and to check they have obtained the qualifying time. This is the first Olympics where individual Olympic committees have the option to register their athletes online.

"Of course, we have kept the paper-based accreditation system in place because many countries do not yet have the capability to register online," says Philipps.

Inclusion is one of the main tenets of the Olympic ideal and this ethos extends to efforts to reduce the cost of implementing the IT that backs up the games.

Where you might expect the IT budget to increase every four years as the International Olympic Committee embraces new technology and new ways of conducting business, the orders from on high are to strive to reduce the IT budget as each Olympic games comes along, Philipps says.

According to Philipps, the International Olympic Committee wants to make the cost of hosting the games more affordable so in future less wealthy countries will have a chance of successfully bidding to host the event.

One way the current IT team is reducing costs is through extensive use of a knowledge management database that contains IT know-how garnered from previous Olympics.

Philipps says drawing on this resource ensures his team does not reinvent the wheel but instead draws on the best practice experience learnt at previous games.

This, coupled with the amount of experience that exists in the IT team, makes Philipps confident of 100% success. He estimates that about 20% of his team have experience of implementing IT at an Olympic event, whether it be the Sydney Olympics 2000 or the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics held in 2002.

Another way the IT team is controlling spend is by trying to use as much of the IT equipment previously used at Salt Lake City as possible. This practice of recycling equipment at different events is on-going.

After the Athens games are over the IT kit will be packed away with a view to rolling out as much as possible for the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy in 2006 and the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. This process is made possible because SchlumbergerSema has the contract to be the lead technology supplier to the Olympics until 2008 - the largest sports IT contract ever awarded.

IT security is a major issue for Philipps, because of the high visibility of the games. He says, " You never know who will try to break in, whether it is by hacking or using a virus or a denial of service attack.

"We have isolated the games network, with no access to the internet or e-mail but we are still taking precautions and have put in firewalls and layers of anti-virus and intrusion detection software."

The security measures also encompass physical security. When testing the security of the IT system for the Salt Lake City games someone slipped into the datacentre, installed a wireless device and was then able to access the system from outside.

This time all the bases are covered. "We will have security staff on hand at all times to monitor the network and to ensure that no one can break into any of the datacentres," says Philipps.

In the run up to the games, Philipps and his team plan to test the network rigorously and check that all business continuity procedures are in place.

"We will rehearse everything and play out many 'what if' scenarios," he says. "Is our kit robust enough? Is the network reliable enough? What happens if there is a power cut? What happens if volunteers do not turn up? We will leave nothing to chance."

As the games approach, Philipps shows no sign of being nervous. "When you are prepared you are less anxious," he says. "I have been working on this project for a long time."

But surely he must be proud of what he has achieved so far? "So far nothing has been achieved," he says. "I will be proud the day games has finished."

According to Philipps, a successful IT project manager must be fully prepared and ready to take the plaudits only after the system he is responsible for has done its job.

It also helps if you are not superstitious - next year's Olympic Games open on Friday 13 August.


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This was first published in November 2003

 

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