Olympic IT survives competitive onslaught

Just two days after the closing ceremony and already the foyer of the Olympic IT Center is devoid of the physical security checkpoints that protected the 2002 Winter Olympics Games’ digital heartbeat.

Even the security barriers that once protected individual floors at the Wells Fargo & Co. Building in downtown Salt Lake City were removed, and recognizing the lack of people and security guards, the guides on this IT media tour noted the obvious fact that sanity was again restored.

If there was a touch of insanity on the IT operations front, it was the simple fact that these Olympics actually passed without serious incident, according to the IT services company behind the scenes, New York-based IT SchlumbergerSema. There were no flagrant security breaches or spectacular computer system failures.

“We didn’t have any [problems] that went public that affected the users,” said Jason Durrant, director of systems integration and testing, an employee of local integrator Satel, which was “sponsored” to work on this Olympics project for Schlumberger Ltd. “Things went better than expected,” he added.

That may have been a gold medal-winning understatement. SchlumbergerSema’s staff spent more than 4,500 man hours before the games running such things as simulation testing and field and shadow system testing at World Championship events, and performing readiness demonstrations before the ever-watchful International Olympic Committee (IOC).

On the security side, the tragic events of Sept. 11 spurred greater attention to physical protection of data assets, adding to the array of fail-over sites and intrusion detection technology that Durrant said had been in place for a long time.

One notable omission, however, was the complete lack of wireless technology. Despite its growing popularity as a networking enabler on enterprise campuses, SchlumbergerSema deemed it too slow and insecure.

That decision reflects a wider ethos held by this company, the recipient of what it says is the largest sports IT contract ever awarded. With four more Olympic Games to host over the coming years, beginning with Athens in 2004, SchlumbergerSema has sought to build a stable and secure IT systems platform from the ground up that will serve as a platform for the coming years.

“We really shied away from anything bleeding edge,” Durrant said. That approach saw the company stick to Oracle 8i for its database needs, for example, rather than adopt the latest release, Oracle Corp.’s 9i. The IT infrastructure also included 145 Sun Microsystems Inc. Solaris and iPlanet-based Unix boxes, two of Sun’s StoreEdge storage units, Veritas Software Corp. clustering software, 4,500 Gateway Inc. PCs and notebooks, 145 servers, and 32,000 miles of optical fiber cable. And unlike the days of old when IBM Corp. had its finger in the Olympic pie running the 3270 network protocol, this network was 100 per cent IP based.

Where applications are concerned, SchlumbergerSema continued to build on Java-based software systems that it initially developed for the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Making up the list of 40 applications and 10 million lines of code was games management software that catered for transport, staffing, and athletes’ accreditation needs. In addition, the Information Diffusion System was used to pump games and results data out to the media, Games officials, and athletes via XML to 1,000 terminals. And when it comes to XML itself, Durrant said SchlumbergerSema intends to exploit the protocol beyond simply using it for data transport at the next games.

This entire operation was run by 3,000 IT staff – half of which were professional-grade volunteers – who serviced 40 venues including 10 sporting venues, the Olympic Village, the Main Media Center, and non-competition venues such as hotels.

By Durrant’s measure it was an “extremely complex” task to mastermind, and unlike IBM’s famed IT failure at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, when the systems serving the media centre crashed, it was error free.

Perhaps the greatest story not yet told is how SchlumbergerSema manages the task of integrating technology from 15 different providers, including Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Xerox Corp., Lucent Technologies Inc., Qwest Communications International Inc., AT&T Corp., Ikano, and MSNBC, all of which are on the scene courtesy of sponsorship agreements.

Durrant said that when it comes to integration, “typically, we fit things in.” On the flip side, he said part of the organization’s role is to work with the IOC to help “evaluate new technology partners.”

With the likes of Sun Microsystems Inc. on board, as one of the vendors driving integration-related initiatives such as Web services, the future will tell as to just how well the existing technology platform will support these new partners.

The good news is that in a country still recovering from the devastation of Sept. 11, the Salt Lake City Games were very publicly a raging success, bleeding technology or not.

“We’re pleased not to be in the headlines,” Durrant said.