When network performance is the name of the Games

Major sporting events are now major IT and networking events. For Aruba, being in charge of networking for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games meant 20 simultaneous major projects - how did it go?

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That Ozzy Osbourne appeared with Black Sabbath at the closing ceremony of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games was something of a surprise. That he belted out his band’s most famous hit with great gusto, ending of with the cry of “Birmingham forever!” was something even more so. But it was a most appropriate way for one of the city’s most famous sons to bring down the curtain on an event whose success and sheer joie de vivre may also have been a surprise.

But less of a surprise was the way in which the Games ran so efficiently, so that the talk was of athletes and rock stars and not the underlying infrastructure, in particular the IT network.

Indeed, the preparations undertaken to ensure the efficient running of the IT infrastrcuture matched that of any of the athletes from across the Commonwealth. Unlike other recent events such as the 2020 Olympics and Euro 2020 football finals, which both ran a year late because of Covid, Birmingham 2022 took place on schedule but, over the course of preparation and planning, ran into the effects of the pandemic full-on.

For the Games’ official technology supplier and network partner, Aruba, the project to ensure the smooth running of the event’s IT infrastructure was unlike any other that the company had seen. Covid had compressed a lot of the timelines and created its own challenges, one of which was whether the event was really going to happen. Requests for proposals to supply the Games were issued about three years ago, with Aruba working for two and a half years to win the contract and outline the initial specification.

With technology playing an increasingly important role in the fan experience at sporting events, the 2022 Commonwealth Games and Aruba made the bold promise to deliver a more connected, more inclusive advanced network infrastructure with a more engaging experience than ever before. Also, they promised to support the development of a digital technology foundation that extends far beyond the lifecycle of the Games.

Almost in the spirit of Black Sabbath’s biggest hit, Jon Moger, senior director EMEA marketing at Aruba UK & Ireland, says the organisers were paranoid about there being another resurgence of coronavirus and how that might affect planning, which in itself was becoming a very movable feast.

“We started the conversations just before Covid hit and then things quietened down for a little while,” says Moger. “And then, thankfully, the Games were able to operate, they had special dispensation from the government to continue operating. So, as one of the partners, were able to do our job subject to the pretty strict rules around how they operated within a facility.

“We spent a lot of time planning what we are connecting and who we are connecting, what their needs were going to be projected forward to when the Games were going to take place. Obviously, as technology moves forward, clearly the asks [in the project] also move forward. You know, everybody comes with a new generation of whatever it is that you need and wants to push more data.”

A sprint that turned into a super sprint

Simon Wilson, chief technology officer at Aruba UK & Ireland, adds: “Normally a host city has about six years to roll up to these days, but we had less than four and really only accelerated in the last two and a half. So you know, it’s a marathon that turns into a sprint, which is a favourite term and is absolutely true. The thing is, it turned into a sprint that turned into a super sprint, because we only gained access to some of the venues very late, for example, Edgbaston [cricket ground] only days before the opening ceremony.

“And it was only once that had happened that the organising committee [OC] could really get in there and start doing their thing. Obviously, we are reliant upon a lot of the things they built for us to connect and provide service to, so it was it was quite an accelerated timeline, especially towards the end.”

But the story really began for Aruba right back as regards why it got involved and what really attracted it to the project in the first place. The company recognises that although it is really prestigious to support a Commonwealth Games, it also means a lot of commitment, and this comes from a firm that has built up a body of work at sporting venues such as the Ryder Cup and refreshing the Tottenham Hotspur football stadium.

What is said to have made Birmingham 2022 different is the type of experience delivered and the legacy to follow the event, using the network deployment as an engine to drive local community engagement.

Media coverage of the Commonwealth Games depended on an efficient IT infrastructure

But the basic job at hand was connecting the Games. Connecting coaches and athletes, the OC, the governing bodies from around the world – Birmingham 2022 had teams from 72 federations – plus the media, anti-doping agents and, perhaps most importantly, the scoring, results and timing infrastructure.

“My major focus area was to make sure that for Longines [the official timekeeper of the Games], that anything they do gets where it needs to go without any problems,” says Wilson. “As part of the run-up to the Games, they went through some local technical rehearsals, which is kind of just the paper exercise for the boardroom, and then undertake a technical rehearsal, which takes in as many venues as they could have access to, and then play through real scenarios.

“So I was asked to tell a technical guide to go and unplug both connections on the WAN circuit. They were testing when the people in the venue noticed it and whether the people at head office, who were supposed to be monitoring that sort of thing, noticed it as well. There are only certain things that can stop the sport taking place, and one of them is impacts to results, timing and scoring. And, of course, we are providing information for media broadcasts, such as commentators’ information systems.

Like 20 simultaneous network refresh projects

“This was a big challenge, no question. It’s like 20 simultaneous network refresh projects. We are going into existing venues, and although we are not necessarily refreshing the existing technologies there, we are transitioning to the new [networking] technology. And so, in some venues, we have to sit alongside and coexist in others, where they are turning off [old tech] while we come into particular parts of the venue.

“So it’s like these refresh projects taking place – new cabling requiring fibre WAN circuits because a lot of the venues didn’t have the quality of WAN connectivity that was required for the Games. There were a lot of WAN circuits and diverse routing enabled for the sites to make sure they were up to scratch as part of the legacy as well.”

As every IT and network manager knows, technology moves on rapidly. And for Birmingham 2022, compared with other games of its type, the equipment deployed was quite different from the traditional kind. A lot of the Aruba wired and wireless technology and infrastructure that would have been used five or six years ago is now based in the cloud – and for good operational and economic reason.

“You have got to make sure that you have high-performance, resilient network connections to get to the cloud”
Simon Wilson, Aruba

Up until now, Commonwealth Games have been standalone projects. An OC used to contract services for a particular country, and when the Games were over, the deployment stopped. The Commonwealth Games wanted to simplify the process of staging the next event and has started the process of multi-year contracts with suppliers, which means the likes of Aruba bidding for the next two Games.

That means taking the learnings and knowledge from one Games to the next – which will be in Victoria, Australia – in four years’ time, so that everything will be simpler. Even though Aruba added first-time innovations for Birmingham 2022 and the OC had a separate innovation budget, they did not want to own any assets, such as datacentres. That meant putting as much as possible into the cloud – specifically, hosting platforms with AWS and Google Cloud.

Wilson says this was important to Aruba. “This [requirement] drives technology decisions for us because, historically, Aruba was an on-premise technology company,” he says. “So now, obviously, we felt that cloud-first strategy was another thing that interested us in the project to showcase our tech. Clearly, you have got to make sure that you have high-performance, resilient network connections to get to the cloud. You need to be survivable if we did lose a connection to the cloud.

“But if everything is in the cloud, is there a need for some mobility locally? Can people use it? We wanted to make sure that was the case for us. To make it fast and easy to set up, we leveraged Aruba Central, our cloud-based network provisioning and monitoring system.”

This has also allowed wireless specialists to do all the setup using an AIOps system as a mechanism for finding out things that go wrong with the network, or things that need attention or things that maybe will need attention – an ability that will not only save time, but will also ensure that systems run better.

Read more about WAN services

Another interesting issue concerned the Wi-Fi service afforded to the Games teams. Everyone wants and expects wireless connectivity these days and sports teams are no exception. In fitting out venues for wireless connectivity, Aruba developed systems based on Wi-Fi 6 and, as you would expect, there were a number of hurdles to overcome to make good on the deployment. All of them presented challenges for different reasons, says Wilson.

“Those already with a robust Wi-Fi infrastructure used an older spectrum,” he says. “So you’ve got the existing providers using the spectrum and some federation turns up with their own Wi-Fi gear. They’ve got quite a robust spectrum management team and those teams that want to want to use the router there can make requests through Ofcom to be allocated spectrum.

“But not everybody did that. Some people just turn up and use their stuff and you may have to turn it off because you can’t impact other services of the Games, particularly results, timing and scoring because somebody’s turned up on their Wi-Fi channel. There are also some venues where our wireless network is the only one there, which means we have to build an infrastructure that understands that the public want to connect to our Wi Fi, so we have to make sure it’s robust enough to cope with those kinds of things.

“Everybody wants to come to us because our mission is not to connect the public – it is to connect the Games family, which is all those teams’ scoring systems, like that. So we’re not offering any public Wi-Fi. We have to make sure that the network is robust enough to be able to rebuff those requests, and still make sure we deliver the [right] services to people.

Like 20 little SMEs

“Our Wi-Fi technology can be deployed in a number of different architectures. It is a huge project – nearly 1,000 access points spread across 20 locations. So, in other words, from a scale perspective, it’s kind of like 20 little SMEs.”

Although Aruba was able to complete its work so that the technology was ready in time for the Games’ opening ceremony, that does not mean that, in a perfect world, it would not have wanted more time. “More time, because then there would have been less stress for the team,” says Wilson. “We would have liked more time to do more testing. There is never enough time for testing, but the only certainty is that you know it’s going to start when it’s going to start. You know the schedule of sports is going to continue and we had to be ready, so we made sure we were.

“But there are other considerations, such as how much it costs the OC to get exclusive rights to a location and it’s very expensive for exclusive rights. So you have to make a decision on how early do you take exclusive use of it, and the money you spend on it versus how long it takes to do the deployment. So it’s a very big balancing act for the OC to deal with.”

And deal with this it did indeed – and with aplomb. The memories of the Commonwealth Games will not only be marked by a host of top-class performances on the track and in the pool, but also by the impressive and diverse creativity shown in the opening and closing ceremonies, and with the event’s IT infrastructure making sure that not a beat was missed. In short, Birmingham 2022 rocked – just ask Ozzy.

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