Olympics IT chief wants a perfect 10

Starting today, thousands of sportscasters, international racing officials and other users at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games will tap into a one-of-a-kind, never-before-production-tested computer system that has taken a consortium of 16 technology providers more than three years to develop and deploy.

And it better work, and work right the first time. If it doesn’t, lead integrator New York-based SchlumbergerSema and its partners – including Sun Microsystems Inc., Gateway Inc., Xerox Corp. and Samsung Electronics Inc. – will be racing hard to beat back a world-class public relations nightmare not unlike the one IBM faced at the 1996 Games.

Back then, flaws in Big Blue’s much-vaunted Olympic Information Network led to inaccuracies and delays in reporting real-time race results around the globe. This time around, SchlumbergerSema has adopted a “one team” approach that involves 15 other companies providing best-of-breed products and services during the Olympic competition in Salt Lake City. Together, they will provide a vast IT system that relays results, events and athlete information to spectators and media around the globe, as well as to 10 on-site sporting venues, the Olympic Village, the Main Media Center and another 20 to 30 non-competition venues, such as athletes’ and officials’ hotels nearby.

With the official opening of the Games only hours away, the pressure is on.

“The nature and scale of these projects is that they’re of a short duration and you get no beta version and you don’t know the demands that will be placed on the system until the Olympics start,” said Ned May, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass. But in another respect, May noted, the Olympic Games are in step with a growing corporate outsourcing trend under which “companies want best-of-breed services, but a single point of accountability.”

Earlier this week, Bob Cottam, SchlumbergerSema’s chief integrator on the US$300 million Olympic Games IT project, talked with Computerworld about organizing, staging and managing a one-of-a-kind IT project which has absolutely zero room for errors.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge on a massive project like this?

A: Pulling the software together for the first time. We’re producing these applications from scratch. When you have a large distributed system, working with all parties on the design and getting the network figured out is a big issue. Also, getting it all together in the test lab is an issue because if you change something in one area, you also change something in another area.

Q: So how is the IT team organized to ultimately deliver IT services at the Olympics?

A: The whole IT staff is about 300 people, with SchlumbergerSema supplying about half of them. On top of that we have another 120 people in Barcelona who are developing applications that were delivered here. But at game time, that staff of 300 will go to 1,300. The Organizing Committee arranges for about 600 volunteers to come in plus Sun, Gateway, Xerox, Kodak and other suppliers have another 300 to 400 people from their facilities. We’re all called IT volunteers.

Q: And who are your users?

A: We have to support 10 sporting venues plus the main media center and the Olympic Village. We staff two main shifts a day and have a main Information Technology Center, which is our mission control for the Games. Because we have such a large, distributed network with thousands of PCs and 700 networking devices, we need a mission control where we can monitor. We also have a help desk that is distributed to all of the sites. If anyone, anywhere has a query, they enter a [trouble] ticket and it gets raised centrally.

Q: What, if anything, in your previous IT jobs has helped prepare you to carry off such a huge project?

A: I’ve worked on large government command and control systems with the same technologies, which are client/server- and Unix-based with NT as the front end. My last job was with a foreign government where we had a central database with 30 sites linked together with redundancy. The reason I’m on this project is that technically, it’s the same challenge, but with this one, the Feb. 8 date doesn’t slip. That date is when the competitions start.

On other projects, if someone changes a specification, you always negotiate more time and more money. Here, there’s no more time and no more money. You just do it. So the biggest challenge? It’s a date that doesn’t slip and a system that must work.

The official Web site of the Winter Olympics is at http://www.saltlake2002.com/

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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