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IT department keeps Volvo Ocean Race sailors connected around the world

As seven yachts compete in the latest Volvo Ocean Race, the IT team supporting the event is engaged in a race of its own

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: IT rules the waves in the Volvo Ocean Race

On the surface, the Volvo Ocean Race is seven yachts racing around some of the most isolated places on earth, but behind the scenes is a monumental IT challenge that includes moving two IT infrastructures across the world.

The first of these global races took place in 1973, when 17 yachts set off from Portsmouth on the south coast of England on a 27,500 nautical mile (51,000km) journey around the world. It was low-tech back then, and if enthusiasts wanted to know what was going on, they had to phone a dedicated number and listen to a recorded message.

The latest eight-month race set off from Alicante, Spain on 22 October on the first short leg, to Lisbon, of its journey, which is now 45,000 nautical miles (83,000km). But while seven yachts provide the public face of the this year’s event, what escapes the eye is the IT operation that supports it.

IT is critical to the race from a commercial as well as a safety perspective. Without it, the sport would be hidden from the world and, as a result, vital sponsorship money would be impossible to attract.

Without the millions of pounds paid by team sponsors to enter the race, it would be impossible for the Volvo Ocean Race, which is not for profit, to take place. It costs sponsors €12m over three years to enter a team.

Sponsors want a return for their investments and world attention is what they crave. About 90,000 people watched the yachts’ arrival in Cape Town live via the internet in the previous event in 2014. With the technology advancements made since then, there will be more demand for content to be delivered in different ways. The boats can even broadcast footage via a satellite link, using drones.

Unlike the once-a-day updates of the past, data from the boats is now fed into a control centre and is monitored in real time, and fans can track the progress of the race through a web link or app. Getting the event broadcast to the world is where the IT infrastructure is put to the test. Indian IT services provider HCL, a core supplier, meets this challenge alongside the organisers’ IT teams.

In each of the 12 main stopovers across the world, a control centre and supporting infrastructure has to be built. The stopovers after Alicante are: Lisbon, Cape Town, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Gaungzhow in China, Auckland, Itajai in Brazil, New Port in the US, Cardiff, Gothenburg and The Hague, where the race finishes.

Read more about the IT underpinning huge sporting events

“We have a tremendous amount of material on the road and although we don’t use it all in every port, we are pretty much self-contained and can do everything everywhere,” said Eric Ernst, stopover IT manager for the Volvo Ocean Race.

As well as the race control centre in Alicante, an entire TV production infrastructure moves around the world ahead of the race to be set up in the stopover ports. There are two sets of everything and two teams supporting them because the boats are so fast that, logistically, it is impossible to get everything set up in time with a single set, so one leapfrogs to a later port to begin preparing. Tonnes of equipment are transported between ports by aircraft.

HCL helps set up the  IT infrastructure supporting the race with mobile datacentres at each stopover port. These communications and technology hubs are transported in two 40ft freight containers with identical equipment in each, which leapfrog each other from port to port.

They contain layer 2 and 3 network switches, firewalls, microwave links, fibre drums, UPS packs, wireless network equipment, video encoders, network storage, servers and ultra-high frequency communication equipment.

The supplier travels with the event to ensure the network infrastructure is in place at every stopover. This brings major challenges, said Ernst. “We are building networks where networks don’t want to live,” he said. “There are lots of challenges in parts that you don’t get in datacentres.” This includes challenges in getting power, using temporary structures and interference from tall boats, he added.

Beyond the challenge of moving and building infrastructure in different locations, the IT team needs to keep up with changing technology trends.

The races take place every three years and the IT teams must predict which technologies will be around at the next event, which would be useful to integrate. “It is not just predicting what will be out there, but what will be the best,” said Ernst. “We have to consider what is going to be new, how we will use it and what value it will bring to our customers.”

Jordi Neves, chief digital officer for the Volvo Ocean Race, said: “In 1993, the way we were telling the world about what was happening in the race was through an answering machine. A message was recorded every day, and the only way we knew the position of the boats was through radio.”

In terms of people seeing footage of the race, VHS was as good as it got, said Neves. “Some of the boats were keen enough to carry cameras and film videos in VHS and when they were close to shore, they would pass on the tapes and, three or four days later, we would be on the news,” he said.

“People only knew the stories when boats arrived at port – if they arrived at all. But today there is a revolution in how we tell the story of the race and how people consume it.”

Every boat has cameras on board. These include two wireless cameras, two 360-degree cameras, and two drones that can follow the boat. There is a member of Neves’ team, known as an onboard reporter, on each yacht to manage the cameras.

All the content from the cameras is fed into race control in Alicante. “This content is then taken and packaged into stories that we can send to the outside world,” said Neves.

Autonomous boat?

Who knows what the IT team will have to deal with at the next event in three years’ time. Perhaps there will be an autonomous boat racing against the sailors and even boats that can become airborne at times, said Neves.

Beyond bringing the race to the public, today’s technology also makes the event safer. Information improves safety for participants, with connections to support centre monitoring the weather and the performance of the boats. This is critical to ensure the crews are safe, especially when they are in remote locations such as the Southern Ocean.

But there are limits on the onboard IT. The race organisers want to ensure that yachts cannot gain an advantage, and each team has the same access to the control centre via an MPSL VPN. If teams were allowed unfettered access to systems that show weather forecasts, they could use this to their advantage to find better routes.

Current boats are so fast that teams can anticipate the movement of weather systems and use these to increase speed.  Each boat is given the same daily download of weather movements, and all communications to and from the yachts goes through race control.

All boats are also built identically to ensure it is a contest of pure sailing ability. “The only diversity these teams have is the people on board,” said Ernst.

The control centre, which is manned 24 hours a day, is backed up with its own generators and two different internet providers bring connections via different routes. There is also a satellite connection if all else fails. “Even if the entire Spanish internet goes down, we can still connect,” said Ernst, speaking from the port in Alicante.

Most of the IT team supporting the event, including Ernst and the staff in the control centre, are sailing enthusiasts and sailors themselves. ..................................................................................................................

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