The Innovators: Games platform

Feature

The Innovators: Games platform

When the Commonwealth Games commence in 2002, Andrew Marshall will have his eyes on the prize. And, as Simon Vail finds out, he could take the plaudits if the systems he's implementing come good

For a non-sporting man, Andrew Marshall has chosen an odd way of spending every working minute of the next couple of years. As technology director of the next Commonwealth Games, to be held in Manchester in July 2002, he is in the throes of making the technology decisions that will ensure the success or failure of the UK's largest ever multi-sports event.

If he gets it right, a billion viewers worldwide will watch the event on television, 140 million will log onto the Internet site every day, and a million spectators will see 17 sporting events at 20 venues in and around Manchester. If he gets it wrong, the clamour for someone to blame will echo round the world, as it did in the Atlanta Olympics when the press could not get into the press centre, and the results system did not work.

To remind himself of the pressure he is under, Marshall keeps a clock by his bedside counting down in 10ths the time remaining until the Queen opens the Games. It is the first thing he sees in the morning and it galvanises him to go on making difficult decisions.

The Games is a dream job for any ambitious technical director, since it encompasses a range of technology and complexity that goes far beyond the normal challenges of setting up an e-business Web site.

In a way the Games are like any other e-business start-up, but with several important distinctions: an immovable launch deadline, the world's media at the launch, and the Queen in attendance. The Government wants a success for the north west. The BBC wants to retrieve some credibility as a sports broadcaster. And Scottish-based Atlantic Telecom, a major sponsor, is determined to show the amazing data transmission rates of its broadband fibre optic network, which it is donating free to the Games.

The pressure is as high as in a dot-com start-up, but the 10-day timescale of the Games makes the event very different, as does the £207m budget - although without a huge crowd of unpaid volunteers, even that wouldn't be enough. Marshall won't be drawn on the amount of money he has to play with, but it is likely to be around £20m. With experience of complex large-scale integration projects - his largest job was with the card issuer GE Capital - Marshall says he has enough.

Atlantic's contribution will have far-reaching technology implications for the Games. Marshall has the kind of bandwidth at his disposal that most FTSE directors interested in convergence can only dream of. FTSE companies run leased lines between different business division at 2Mb; Marshal has transmission speeds of at least 155Mb. Atlantic's technical project director for the Games, Peter Barr, says that gigabit speeds will be on offer, although the exact specifications for the project have not yet been laid down.

Interactive TV and the massive data transmission rates between all venues mean that for 10 glorious days (if British athletes do well) the Games could be the world's leading example of convergence. "This will be the first games where telecoms is the most important single component," Marshall says. "Previous games venues had independent islands of computing provided by a hardware supplier. But as we move into the Internet and mobile phone era and the wired world, then the telecoms infrastructure on which that sits becomes much more important than the make of box running the IT."

He talks casually of 1,200 PCs to run the administrative and e-commerce systems planned for the Games, but says they are not really the point. He wants to plan for a massive Internet audience and a new mobile phone audience, desperate to read results as they happen. In the last Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, the Internet site received 36 million hits a day. He is planning for six million WAP devices, not necessarily mobile phones, although there are only 225,000 WAP phones in the UK today. In addition, he expects half the UK's population to have Internet access by 2002, up from 25% today, and 60% of that audience to use it for sports results.

With few applications and appliances, WAP has so far shown little take-up, as Marshall acknowledges, but he hopes that by 2002 combined PDA/mobile phone devices will allow fans to download selected results against a predefined list of preferences. Wired WAP is an application Marshall has high hopes for. Delivering sports content to a simple Internet appliance in the nation's homes is something he needs to plan for.

"We're talking here about a kind of lightweight Internet," he says. "The Amstrad e-mailer, currently retailing for £80, is an example of that. With one flash EPROM update a WAP browser could be on that device, and WAP content as well as e-mail could be delivered to it."

Marshall admits he can't possibly know what devices will be on the market in 2002, but believes the base technology platform is all-important. Games results will be delivered from a SQL server into Dynamic HTML, leading to results that are 'target-independent'.

"There may be any number of delivery channels," says Marshall. "We're not prescribing the target systems, and can in fact add to those quite late in the cycle. What we are doing is making sure that when we store and distribute information we do it in such a way that we can satisfy any delivery mechanism the public is asking for."

There is one interesting caveat to the convergent world Marshall is working on: moving images themselves will not be transmitted over the Internet, even though they could be. To do that would prejudice the broadcast TV rights, which are worth millions of pounds.

The Games organising company has appointed an in-house technology group to implement the converging worlds of broadcast pictures, telecoms and IT, convinced that it is the cheapest and most efficient route. An outside company could have been the lead contractor, but Marshall believes they would have lacked the experience and commitment. As such, the project team is determined to record its experiences of integrating the host of business services and systems and technical infrastructure so they could be used by another games organiser in the future. Incredibly, nobody in the games/event arena is required to document how they solve problems common to all games events - the technology wheel is reinvented every time.

Marshall says that although he is working on a sports event, the knowledge gained in delivering content to mobile devices should transfer to all business-to-business and business-to-consumer companies. "We have learnt already that you can't separate IT from broadcasting technology or its delivery channel. Technology is mission-critical to the delivery of any modern business, and not a subordinate function," he says. If all goes well, the combined IT, networking and telecoms technology will prove his point. The 10-day equivalent of a FTSE 100 company will churn out digital sporting content and images on TVs, phones, radios, Internet appliances and PCs. "We need to demonstrate that in the UK we can do these things competently - and we will be demonstrating that," says Marshall. "We're aiming for zero defects."

Thin's the winner

The most significant choice the Games technology group has made, under Andrew Marshall's direction, is to use a Windows 2000 and Intel platform. Roughly 1,200 PCs will be installed in more than 20 venues.

Previous events of this scale were usually led by one IT company, which in the past has led to the dominance of Unix or AS/400 solutions. "Windows 2000 will give us a single operating systems to support, and more importantly gives us the opportunity to use thin-client technology wherever possible," says Marshall.

Thin-client removes the need to load applications on individual PCs, and is also expected to cut down substantially on the training load.

With a paid staff of just 300, the Games will need an army of volunteers, all of whom have to know how to use the technology to operate timing, security and logistics systems. Athletes will have also access to the systems for their own e-mail, bringing the total user base up to 35,000. "All of them will need training on whatever system they use, and that is very much simpler using a browser environment with one consistent user interface that is simple to drive," says Marshall.

Each sports venue is split into five separate technology areas, all linked by switched ATM networks, private cable systems and the Atlantic broadband fibre optic cable. A timing and scoring zone feed results into a local results server; commentator and press zones have access to these results, and are in turn overseen by a command-and-control zone. Results are combined with television pictures and also transmitted over the Internet.

Marshall's team found that the scores from the recent Wimbledon tennis matches took 16 minute to appear on mobile phones using SMS messaging. He expects real-time display on the Internet during the Commonwealth Games - or as close as he can get it. Commentators in one venue will be able to see what is going on in another venue, and look at the results instantly.


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This was first published in September 2000

 

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