Forget Cool--Reliability Reigns At Games - InformationWeek

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Forget Cool--Reliability Reigns At Games

100,000 hours of testing and 500 what-if scenarios later, Olympics IT managers are ready for the games to begin

Picture this: U.S. speed skating star and gold-medal hopeful Chad Hedrick crosses the finish line first in the 1,500-meter race at the Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy, but a computer fails to register the result. As millions of viewers look on, four years of intense training go down the drain in an unrecorded split second.

Parallel Giant Slalom And Snowboard Cross Run

Parallel Giant Slalom And Snowboard Cross Run
That kind of nightmare is unlikely, but it could haunt Olympic athletes in the final days leading up to Torino 2006, especially if they know about computer-generated inaccuracies at the 1996 games that forced IBM to issue an apology. And it's just that scenario Olympic organizers hope to avoid as they invest $400 million in IT for the games, with stability and reliability as the guiding principles behind that spending. It's why wireless capabilities will be offered as an add-on to Olympics IT systems but aren't being used in any main systems running the games, and why there's an extensive redundant network in case of power and telephone outages.

It's a mind-set that has required Olympic organizers to resist pressure from tech companies to use the most-up-to-date technologies for important functions. "We're looking to have high quality but mainly a reliable solution," says Enrico Frascari, director of technology for the Turin Organizing Committee. Frascari's approach is similar to one that David Busser took as CIO of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. "I like to think we were innovative, but it's not innovation at the cost of additional risk," Busser said in a recent interview. "The systems absolutely, positively have to work."

Web Services In Lead

Speed Skating Oval

Speed Skating Oval
That was four years ago--practically a lifetime in terms of IT--and one area where Frascari is breaking with Busser is Web services. Busser resisted using them because, back then, the concept was too new. Atos Origin, a French services company that ran much of the IT for the 2004 Summer Games and is doing the same in Turin, designed two giant suites of applications for the Winter Olympics--the Games Management and the Information Diffusion systems--that use open standards such as XML so that Web-based apps can rapidly and easily exchange information. Games Management will handle athletes' accreditation, transportation and accommodation schedules, medical reports, and qualification information. It also enforces the protocols that keep the Olympics running on time. Information Diffusion will serve results and athlete information to 2,500 athletes and 10,000 media representatives and provide intranet access to 90,000 people associated with the Olympics.

Olympic Arch

Olympic Arch
"The importance of what we're doing is so big, you can't sleep a single minute," says Claude Philipps, Atos Origin's program director for the Winter Games, who moved to Turin the day after the Athens Games ended. "We need to deliver by any means as long as we're safe, secure, accurate, and within the budget," Philipps says. He expects the systems to produce tens of millions of results, all of which will come to television commentators' screens within milliseconds, and to journalists within 0.3 seconds of each event's end at 14 competition venues.

Technology isn't the only thing that has advanced in recent years--so has the experience of hackers and the sophistication of viruses, worms, and other forms of malicious code. During the Athens Games, Atos Origin recorded more than 5 million security alerts. Twenty alerts were deemed critical, yet a heavy focus on security at the time meant not one resulted in problems. "If you have a virus on the system that's generating results, you have to shut down the servers," says Yan Noblot, Atos Origin's information-security manager for Turin. "You have to shut down the competition, and the international federation is going to be really upset." Not to mention the viewing public.

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