IBM serves Wimbledon's data needs

With an ever-increasing range of applications and users, keeping up with Wimbledon's data traffic demands a sophisticated, flexible approach to networking

As well as great tennis, good information flow is vital to the Wimbledon tennis championships.

This year's tournament is no different, and will rely even more heavily on its dedicated wireless network, as well as on the traditional wired system, to ensure that live match data gets out to the press and public as quickly as possible.

The Lawn Tennis Association, which runs the Wimbledon championships, has been working with IBM Global Services to build a dedicated wireless Wi-Fi network to cover much of the grounds.

The association started working with IBM Global Services in 1990 to devise electronic scoring and statistics systems. In 1996, IBM created the graphics that the BBC uses in its coverage of Wimbledon. Since then, IBM has helped to develop IT systems to cover everything from intranet and internet access to ticketing and gate security.

"We are introducing all of this new technology while the club maintains a 'tennis in an English country garden' appearance," says Paul Figgins, senior IT specialist at IBM Global Services, who is effectively Wimbledon's IT manager.

He says that technology is assisting Wimbledon in remaining the premier Grand Slam tennis event. It is worth noting that IBM also provides the technology for the three other Grand Slam events: the French Open, Australian Open and US Open.

This year, Wimbledon has a wireless network comprising more than 70 wireless access points around the site, giving key user groups - officials, press and players - wireless access to the internet and Wimbledon's various intranets and applications.

The wireless project started in 2003, when IBM piloted wireless access in the press centre, Centre Court and Court One, mainly for photographers to send images to their photo editors straight from the courts. Cisco provided the networking equipment, including 16 access points.

"It was a resounding success, and people asked to have more coverage the following year, and we have been building on that ever since," says Figgins.

Between 2003 and 2006 only a handful of journalists had wireless-enabled laptops, and Figgins configured them individually as required. But last year, a couple of hundred members of the press arrived as the tournament began, all demanding web access for their laptops.

"The logistics of configuring, supporting and helping all these individuals is quite something, particularly when they come in on Monday morning expecting access, and there is a queue of people banging on the table and saying 'configure my computer now'," says Figgins.

As a result, IBM has extended the cabling across the site to ensure that more areas are both Wi-Fi and Ethernet enabled, including the whole of the press centre. It also encourages users who can link into the wired Ethernet network to do so to ease network traffic.

As well as facing demand from more users, the network has had to adapt to bandwidth-hungry users, such as press photographers. In 2003, says Figgins, there were two or three photographers from the agencies who wanted to upload images from Centre Court and Court One. Now there are dozens of them, taking photographs with cameras that can instantly upload the images via a wireless link.

So IBM has had to make all of its local access points available in the tennis courts, in particular, providing a 12mbps pipe, and balancing the load on the wired and wireless networks to provide the optimum bandwidth for all users.

Figgins says, "The Wi-Fi equipment is based on the 802.11g standard, which in theory offers data transfer speeds of 64mbps. But in reality this comes down a bit, and if you have got a mixed 802.11b and 802.11g client environment this brings it down a bit further. So you are effectively looking at something like a 10mbps hub.

"In Centre Court, for example, you have three access points all on different channels. We make all that available, so there is no clash in interference, and try to optimise it. By adding in the wired network and sharing out bandwidth, it lengthens the life of that particular system."

But the press are not the only users of the wireless system. As time went by, the club received requests for network access from users who were working in temporary huts and marquees that were being erected beyond the courts. As no cabling was in place, and because the tennis courts could not be disturbed, extending the wireless system was an attractive alternative. Eventually, these locations will be wired, says Figgins, as this will offer a more robust and reliable network link.

More recently, IBM started demonstrating PDA technology over the wireless network, giving handhelds to hospitality guests to show off its Pocket Wimbledon information system. The system includes a database of scores and statistics, biographies and history videos, as well as live streaming video from the matches.

IBM is currently extending the wireless network to run an application for Group 4 Security, which escorts the players to and from courts. Group 4 staff will use handheld devices to enable them to know when matches are starting and finishing.

For Wimbledon 2006, the security team on the gates located at the far points of the Wimbledon compound started using the wireless network. Sending data to the central IBM DB2 database from Symbol PPT800 handheld ID badge scanners via wireless links enabled them to confirm the identity of contractors and full-time and temporary staff in real time as they entered the grounds.

The system requires all workers to present an accreditation badge to security staff, who scan it to ensure it matches the photographic records held on the Club CRM system, Aegis (All England Global Information Systems), developed by First Sports International. There are links to the police intelligence system.

This year, the system will also cover ticket retail. "In the old days, people used to put their tickets in the bin, and every so often someone would go around and empty the bins and resell the tickets. This year, people will have their ticket scanned, and the system will reprint it up at the top of Henman Hill," says Figgins. As a result, visitors will be able to keep their tickets as a souvenir, he says, and the Lawn Tennis Association will be able to reduce fraud.

Wirelessly enabling the far-flung kiosks did pose some challenges, says Figgins, because they needed power to be cabled down to them.

"At the very back of the site is a little hut in the middle of a field, which is an entrance. We needed to get scanning facilities and an access point to there, so the club's cabling and electrical teams had to dig a trench 200 yards through the field to put in cabling for an access point in this little hut."

Another physical problem that the IT team faces is the growth of trees and bushes, which can emerge during the year between the access points and user sites, restricting wireless access.

The building works, which began in 2006 to refurbish Centre Court and build a new roof, have also provided another challenge. The project will last three years and building work continues throughout the year except for the two tournament weeks.

The IT team wants to install wireless access points in the building to cover the courts, restaurants and other areas.

Most of the fixed network elements were tested five weeks ago, but, to a large extent, Figgins had to wait until the temporary cabins and marquees had been installed before he could configure and install the last access points, ensuring they could be managed from the central Cisco Works console.

This tool gives a visual overview of the whole Cisco switched Ethernet infrastructure, a fibre-based backbone network across the whole site, which has dual or triple routes everywhere. The IT system incorporates about 30 different Cisco switches in racks around the site, and more than 70 Cisco Aironet 1200 series 802.11g access points.

"Cisco Works gives us a map on the screen, and we can get an alert to tell us exactly what part of the site has a problem, and what device it is. That could be anything from a switch to a PC, a server or an access point, and it is not just the wireless network that is covered: it is the whole network," says Figgins.

The IT system underwent two major tests in March and April, focusing on the referee system, the scoring system and the radar system.

Two weeks before the tournament started, the applications team arrived to test their various applications. A few days later, the internet team came in straight from the French Open at Roland Garros to ensure the various web technologies were up and running.

The final "dress rehearsal" test took place last Friday, three days before Wimbledon opened. This test brought together Figgins' team of 160 IBM personnel, which includes IT architects, systems builders, technical specialists, the internet support team, 80 data-entry staff who input data at the Show Courts and Centre Court, the Lawn Tennis Association's IT group, and BBC technical staff and producers.

More on Wimbledon's wireless security >>

Wimbledon 2007 site >>

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