CW500: The technology behind the BBC's Olympics coverage

BBC CTO John Linwood told Computer Weekly’s CW500 Club about the “terrifying” challenge of providing live coverage of all events at the Olympics

The Olympic Games on home soil will be the final instalment of the most operationally challenging period in the BBC’s history, and the broadcaster’s chief technology officer (CTO) John Linwood told Computer Weekly’s CW500 Club about the “terrifying” challenge of providing live coverage of all events at the Olympics, thinking the unthinkable and balancing this with his day job as a corporate IT chief.

The BBC has this year faced several major challenges, from broadcasting the Diamond Jubilee and the European football championships not to mention the Proms, and live music festival the Hackney Weekend, all while moving large chunks of its operation from London to Manchester, and into its newly expanded Broadcasting House location. “This year has been the biggest operational challenge we have had,” says Linwood.

For example, the corporation is running 24 live high-definition (HD) TV channels ensuring that every second of the London Olympics can be watched live or recorded from multiple devices.

While his day job of running IT at the BBC goes on with things like bring your own device schemes and upgrading Microsoft Exchange being planned, it is the fact that the London 2012 Olympics is set to be the most digital and technology enabled event in history, with all sports available for viewing from multiple devices, that keeps him awake at night.

“This is the biggest digitised event ever and has been terrifying me for years,” says Linwood. “The terrifying thing for us is the fact that everybody will be watching this during the day on lots of different devices.”

We are putting in the extra hours to make this happen.

John Linwood, CTO, BBC

Digital broadcasting

The last time London held the Olympics was 1948. That was, at the time, one of the biggest TV events in history and encouraged the population to get TVs, whether they bought them or built them themselves. This year’s event could be a similar push for digital broadcasting and the hardware required to view it.

Digitisation is transforming Olympic broadcasting. “What is unique about this year is that for the first time in history we are taking live feeds from every single event with more than 2500 hours of live television,” says Linwood. 

The BBC’s 24 live HD streams are available on satellite, cable and the web. It will also run 24 standard definition (SD) streams and BBC1, BBC2 and BBC3 will also be carrying lots of Olympic coverage. All the coverage will also be available to watch at a later time and viewers will be able to switch easily between live events while they are running. The BBC’s mantra is “we are giving you complete control to watch what you want to watch and when you want to watch it.”

Linwood says the fact that people are watching events all the time on a multitude of devices puts pressure on the BBC infrastructure. He says it would be easier and less costly if everyone watched from a TV: “We talk about things in four screens. There are TVs, mobile devices, tablets and a whole set of interactive devices such as games consoles. We are available on all of these.”

To ensure that broadcasts can be viewed on “a myriad of mobile devices”, Linwood says a huge amount of work over the last two years has been carried out in the BBC’s “broadcast chain.”

Think the unthinkable

Any mistakes will be seen by millions so reputational damage would be huge, which is probably why Linwood has been terrified for the years leading up to the event. But the long days and late nights put in by IT teams will pay off. “A lot of the work over the last three years has been on our broadcast chain. We have done all the testing we can and we are very confident, it will work,” says Linwood.

He also has to think the unthinkable: “What if something else happens while the Olympics is on? What if a head of state dies or there is a terrorist attack?” This has all been planned for. “We had a number of scenario planning events to plan how we would cover those,” he says.

IT and editorial have to work close together because of the key role of technology today. “We have had to plan editorially about how we would manage it. If there is a British entrant in the 100 metre final and they are just about to fire the gun to go off and something big happens, it’s a tough editorial decision. Do you stay with the 100m final or go to whatever has happened. “

Web development has also been a major project. To go with all the coverage there are also huge amounts of web content. For example there is a web page for every single athlete in the Olympics, a lot of which is automatically generated using semantic web technologies. Automating content was essential to keep costs down. “This is a huge event but is only two weeks long so we did not want armies of people generating the content,” says Linwood. The content interacts with broadcasts - for example, it will allow viewers to find information about competitors while they watch events.

But it is not just broadcasting that occupies Linwood’s time at work. His job can be split in two. While he runs corporate IT like every other CIO he is also the person that oversees the use of technology to broadcast.

He says, “While we are doing all this we have our day job. Things that every one of your IT departments are doing. We are rolling out bring your own device. We are deploying Microsoft Lync and we are upgrading our Exchange servers.” 

The IT underpinning the London 2012 Olympics

Over 3,500 IT professionals will be working 24x7 to ensure the Olympics IT runs smoothly.  As the official Olympic Games integrator, Atos will co-ordinate an ecosystem of suppliers. These are: Omega, timing and scoring systems; BT, fixed network, mobile network and telephony; Cisco, network infrastructure; Airwave, radio systems provider; Panasonic - audio visual, TV and video; Samsung - mobile communications equipment; and Acer, computers.

There will be a 2000m2 Technology Operations Centre. It will have 70 staff at peak, 880 PCs, 130 servers and 110 network switches.

In total there will be 900 servers, 1,000 network and security devices and more than 10,000 computers deployed to support London 2012. Over 5,000 technology staff - including 2,500 volunteers - will be involved in the Olympics IT. There will have been over 200,000 hours of testing of systems before the first athlete begins their pursuit of gold.

The IT legacy

There are also a large number of new tools and services for staff being rolled out, while the BBC, like most other publicly funded organisations, also has had to deal with cost cutting: “We had to cut costs by 20% across the piece,” says Linwood.

He says the combination of IT operational transformation and the number of important events have been challenging: “The BBC is very good at doing these events but we would probably prefer not to do quite so many of them in such a short time.

“But the way I look at it is, it is probably going to be the only time in my life and the people that work with me that we will be this close to the Olympics. That is why we are putting in the extra hours to make this happen.”

The huge investment in the London Olympics is made in the knowledge of there being a lasting legacy. The sports facilities built and IT professionals trained for the event will benefit the country for years to come. Linwood says there will be a broadcasting technology legacy. “We have been looking at this a lot and what we didn’t want to do was build an infrastructure that gathers dust afterwards.”

He says the BBC has been careful not to build too much capacity and has worked with partners to support this, and he says the technology will continue to be used for major events in the future. “And there is no shortage of people in the BBC that will use any kit we have bought after we are finished with it.”

When it comes to a return on investment, Linwood says it is about ensuring all the UK population can get the content they want as well as bringing people in the UK together. “At the end of the day that is what the licence fee is about.”

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