CIO interview: Gerry Pennell, CIO, London 2012 Olympics

With less than 10 months to go, London 2012 CIO Gerry Pennell is fully focused on the task of delivering a project that simply cannot miss its deadline.

Imagine: It's the evening of Sunday 5 August 2012; Usain Bolt has just crossed the finish line in the 100m final, the Blue Riband event of the London Olympic Games. Bolt's eyes dart up to the big screen showing the results. Thousands of commentators and journalists look at their information screens; 80,000 spectators in the Olympic Stadium look to the results too, and gasp in anticipation of a spectacular new world record. Around the globe, billions more are watching and listening on TV, the web and mobile phones to acclaim the faster man in the world, ever.

And it's your IT systems they are waiting to see. Blue screen is not an option.

For Gerry Pennell, CIO of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, that's what his job entails, and he's remarkably sanguine about the whole thing, saying simply that by the time Bolt - or whoever it may be - crosses the line, his team will have proved that the IT works. What's he most looking forward to? "The end of the Paralympics closing ceremony," he says.

With less than 10 months to go, Pennell is fully focused on the task of delivering a project that simply cannot miss its deadline.

"You learn how much you can do in a short space of time if you have the right focus," he says.

One of the big milestones was achieved this week, with the formal launch of the Technology Operations Centre (TOC) in Canary Wharf, the mission control for the Games' IT and networks infrastructure. Some 450 IT experts, working around the clock in shifts of up to 180 people, will be on hand throughout the Olympics and Paralympics to make sure everything works.

In total, some 5,000 IT professionals will be involved during the Games, consisting of Pennell's 300-strong in-house team, plus staff from key suppliers including Atos, BT, Cisco, Acer and Samsung, plus 2,500 volunteers. They will be supporting critical applications such as the Commentator Information System and results services, as well as monitoring 900 servers, 1,000 network and security devices and 9,500 PCs.

Pennell is as close to a veteran of such a high-profile task as you can get - he was director of technology for the Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002. Before signing up for the Olympics in November 2008, he was CIO at The Co-Operative Group, where he oversaw a major, multimillion-pound IT transformation programme.

Despite the obvious pressures of such a job, he's in his element.

"The dirty little secret is that I'm really rather enjoying myself at the moment," Pennell told Computer Weekly at the TOC launch.

"This is the point where everyone is working very hard, it's all coming together, and most of my job now is more reactive than it was a year-and-a-half ago, when it was about strategy, finding suppliers, signing contracts, recruiting staff, and gearing up the team. We're at the stage now where it's about managing the team and keeping everybody together - I quite enjoy that."

Elements of the Olympics IT roll over from one Games to the next - key supplier Atos is contracted by the International Olympic Committee as its worldwide IT partner, which means developing and running core systems for games management and results information, that are used in every summer and winter Olympics.

But for London, Pennell has to introduce a lot of new developments.

"Quite a lot of the software in London is a new architecture," he says. "We have tried to rethink the way the technology works. There's an awful lot of new software to deal with"

Few of the Games IT systems are transactional - the main focus is on collecting and distributing data, in particular results and timings for events. In London, 30% more results data will be processed than in Beijing in 2008, and the growth of fans accessing that data via the web and mobile phones presents a particular step-up in expectation.

The Olympics IT team has developed a new common interface specification for handling data from applications, with an XML schema defined for the Olympics data feed.

More real-time results information will be published than ever before, with plans in place for "significantly enhanced" access to information for the public, including smartphone and tablet apps to help spectators and sports fans enjoy the experience even more.

But with such a wide output of data all over the world, security is an inevitable concern. Pennell is understandably reluctant to discuss details of the Olympics' IT security measures, and he insists that so far there is no evidence of any greater cyber threat or hacker attacks as publicity around the Games builds up.

"We keep mission-critical components quite separated from externally facing systems," he says.

"We use a content delivery network to push out data, which makes it hard for us to be hit by a denial of service attack because our front end is highly distributed."

The demands of tech-savvy spectators keen to share their Olympics experience with friends via social media will be a new challenge for 2012, and one the IT team is taking seriously. Pennell has been in talks with the mobile network operators, as well as working with BT to provide open Wi-Fi in the Olympic Park in Stratford.

"We have worked closely with BT and the mobile operators to make sure there is enough infrastructure to provide a good level of service during the Games," he says.

"But there will always be moments when the demand is so huge in sporting events that not everybody can get access."

From here on, the priority is testing the systems that have been designed and built ready for next summer. A series of sporting events to test every aspect of the Games' venues is well underway, with IT testing as part of that.

The biggest test exercise for the IT comes in March and May next year, when technical rehearsals take place, to simulate a wide range of possible problems.

"We will throw hundreds of scenarios at the TOC," says Pennell. Likely tests include cyber attacks as well as physical attacks, even checking what happens if someone unplugs cables or switches off servers.

Between now and the Opening Ceremony on 27 July, it will be a case of ticking off one milestone after another to get the IT proven and ready for when the eyes of the world will be on London - and the Olympics technology will be central to everyone's enjoyment of the sporting spectacular.

"Broadly things are performing as expected," says Pennell. "We are where we need to be."

Watch a video interview with Gerry Pennell, London 2012 CIO, recorded by Olympics IT supplier Atos:

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