John Linwood, BBC CTO, on the Olympics output and digitisation

The BBC’s chief technology officer John Linwood talks about managing record-breaking Olympics online viewing and the digital future of the BBC

“There was a moment at the end of the closing ceremony where we breathed a sigh of relief,” says BBC CTO John Linwood.

It’s not surprising given the scale of Linwood’s task, having delivered 2.8 petabytes of data on the busiest day of the London 2012 Olympic Games; along with the largest online mobile streaming ever at 12 million video requests.

But Linwood says the operational running was remarkably calm during the event.  

“As with any major complex technology piece, we were closely monitoring systems all the way through. There were a couple of little hardware problems, but nothing that impacted the audience," he says.

“We knew this was going to be the largest digital event ever. But the 37 million visits to the site – that was certainly way bigger than we had banked on. But we had the right infrastructure to ensure we coped with it."

Viewing figures are back to normal, but the organisation isn’t now left with a lot of empty equipment lying around.

“On the broadcast side, we rented in the [extra] equipment for the duration of the event, as we didn’t want huge warehouses of equipment we are not using,” says Linwood.

The BBC also used third-party networks to take the strain off its existing networks and so it didn’t have to buy equipment that would then sit idle, he says.  

“But having said that we always over-provide capacity, for major news story etc. But also in case of DDoS [distributed denial of service] attacks, so we tend to have lots of bandwidth and server capacity in any case to deal with both of those scenarios, so we have more than we need day-to-day.

“In terms of overall focus now, there is clearly an interesting question about having had 24 live streams, and whether that should set a precedent for future live events. That is something the BBC board would have to work out in terms of policy and affordability."

The BBC’s digital future

Other on-going projects for the BBC are the full roll out of HD across Scotland and Northern Ireland for local services, and finishing off the digital switchover in Northern Ireland in October.

Cloud and virtualisation are also areas the BBC is working on – with some IT chiefs having said the moves can’t come quickly enough.

“We are already using the cloud for software development and testing, and also for document and content sharing. We are looking at a lot of virtualisation. We’ve virtualised much of the BBC Exchange servers, and are virtualising local radio, moving all the technology out of studios into a datacentre," says Linwood.

“But we have to tread cautiously, and cloud is not a panacea. There are issues around security and around the Patriot Act [in terms of data hosted by US organisations being subject to extraction by the US government]. And of course the reliability issues we’ve seen around some major cloud vendors’ servers tripping up. So at the moment I do feel we are moving at the right speed”

Does he see former director general Mark Thompson’s recent move to head up the New York Times digital content as a sign that the BBC has become a world-leader in digital?

“We’ve got to be careful, because I think a lot of the BBC’s success is down to its amazing content. The iPlayer is a great piece of technology but if you don’t have good content it doesn’t matter," he says.

“The BBC continues to be innovative, in the way we deliver digital output we continue to be at the front of setting standards. But having said that there are plenty of other people doing amazingly cool stuff, too.”

Linwood doesn’t believe the budget cuts at the BBC have curbed the organisation’s ability to innovate, but says the way it comes up with new ideas is changing.

“Innovation is happening more and more through partnerships, and the BBC has many technology partners around the world. We work with a wide range, such as major vendors like IBM, Cisco and Microsoft, as well as other broadcasters [such as Japanese national broadcaster NHK] using its [Ultra-HD] Super Hi-Vision technology.”

Now it’s all over what are the key lessons Linwood has learned from the delivery of technology during the Games?

“I think a key thing is you can never be over prepared, by constantly doing ‘what if’ scenarios," he says.

“As always with these large events people come up with new and clever things at the last minute. But you have to say no, and have a change freeze. That is hard when you are surrounded by so many creative people, but the priority has to be ensuring we stay on air.”

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