All eyes may be on the athletes at Beijing's Olympic Games, but the performance of the IT systems running the event play a critical part in ensuring its success.
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Despite 200,000 hours of testing and years of preparation, Jeremy Hore, Atos Origin's chief integrator, admits to feeling nervous one week before the opening ceremony.
"There are millions of things that could keep you awake at night," he says. "There is no one big problem the technology is very complex, anything can happen and there are lots of small things.
"But at the end of the day we have spent a lot of time testing and preparing, and if we identify issues we need to be able to respond."
Atos Origin, along with eight other suppliers, has been working on the IT since 2003. The IT team spent the two months building up to the games installing the final pieces of infrastructure and equipment needed for the four-week event. Suppliers have also been training staff and volunteers, as well as ironing out technical glitches.
The second technical rehearsal in June went well, according to Hore. All competition venues were involved in the trial run, but some media areas and non-competition zones were not complete. Since the rehearsal, IT staff have been busy installing equipment and linking it up to the infrastructure. Some media areas were finished only once the media teams arrived in Beijing in the last week before the opening of the Olympics.
Last week, IT staff were entering reams of data into the information systems, such as athlete biographies and previous world records. Everything had to be double-checked to ensure it was correct, as this information is then matched up with results as they come in during the games.
Atos Origin has 400 staff in Beijing - overall, there are 4,000 IT staff and volunteers. Most activity will be centred around the technology operations centre, which is the IT hub of the event. Different teams work round the clock to make sure everything runs smoothly.
"Three weeks before the games the atmosphere really changed, because the technology operations centre started working 24 hours a day," says Hore. "A lot of media arrived, and there were a lot of Chinese people around who wanted to see what was going on. You really start to feel like it is the Olympics when people start coming from all over the world."
Securing the games
Security is a big issue for the Olympics. Computer Associates provided the software for a monitoring system, and Atos Origin applied the configurations on top of the software that allow staff to correlate the millions of IT events that happen each day. Staff can then pick out anything suspect and alert staff at the venue concerned.
"If, for example, the team see someone plugging a USB device into a PC, or entering the wrong user name and password three times, they will tell staff at the venue," says Hore. "In 95% of cases it is nothing, but they check everything that could be a risk."
The biggest challenge of the last few weeks, Hore says, has been the size of the project and the logistics in accrediting athletes, officials and media from all over the world. "We realised that the workload after the second technical rehearsal was enormous, which was surprising. There was a bit of a gap where we figured out what we needed to do next. I expected the work to be steady, but there was a trough for a week or two where we were reviewing the results of the technical rehearsal, and after that it was very busy."
One important challenge was getting the right team together early on. It was impossible, Hore says, to know exactly what skills would be required four years before the event because there are always situations that have not been planned for. The team needs people who are flexible, can use their initiative, and who are prepared to go a bit further to make sure everything goes well.
So what has he learnt? Hore is saving his advice for his successor - who will be working on the London Olympics. "The person who will take over is working here with me now, but I think I will save my advice until the end of the Games, and until we have seen how it has gone."
Olympics IT systems
The Olympics IT systems are being powered by Lenovo SureServers. These are responsible for handling hundreds of thousands of requests per second, covering everything from scores to athlete biographical information. Lenova has engineered the hardware configuration to support 23 million live queries simultaneously.
The Windows-based SureServers are four times faster than the IT setup used in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. Lenovo says its server configuration for the Olympics, based on the Intel Architecture framework servers, greatly reduces IT management costs, by eliminating the need for time-consuming per-server configuration and co-ordination.
Significantly, SureServer hardware costs 50% less than the previous Unix system, according to Lenova, which means that two dedicated Unix specialists are no longer needed at each Olympic venue.
- For images of the IT team at the Olympics go to: Beijing Olympics IT team applies final touches>>