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Wiring the Olympics in Italy's mountains

Before a single skate hits ice at the Winter Olympics in Turin, thousands of technology specialists will have spent much of the past few years designing, building and testing a massive computing and communications infrastructure.
The Alpine Ski Olympic track of Sestriere, Italy, will host the Alpine Ski Men's races of the XX Olympic Winter games.
The Alpine Ski Olympic track of Sestriere, Italy, will host the Alpine Ski Men's races of the XX Olympic Winter games.Massimo Pinca / Ap File / AP
/ Source: Forbes

Winning a medal at next month's Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, could be the memory of a lifetime for some 2,500 athletes from around the world.

But before a single skate hits ice, thousands of technology specialists will have spent much of the past few years designing, building and testing a computing and communications infrastructure that helps run the show, from reporting competition results to ensuring athletes get to their events on time — with absolutely no room for error.

Add to the mix that these winter games are in the mountains of northern Italy — far from the ideal atmosphere for computers, network routers and wires.

"One of the biggest challenges was the deployment," said Yan Noblot, information security manager for Atos Origin, worldwide information technology partner for the Turin Olympics. "For the winter games, we have to deploy IT systems in the mountains. It's freezing, and computers don't really like cold or humidity. But you're basically surrounded by snow."

Paris-based Atos Origin, which also managed the IT infrastructure for the 2004 games in Athens, was responsible for designing, creating and implementing many of the systems and applications that support both the sporting competitions themselves and other facets of the Olympics. These applications range from accrediting more than 90,000 athletes, coaches, officials and staff to sending results to television commentators, graphical scoreboards and some 10,000 media representatives within one-third of a second.

With some 2 billion people expected to watch the games on television this February, one of the most important pieces of the technology puzzle is the commentator information system, a browser-based application that displays event results and background information to broadcasters on touch-screen Lenovo kiosks for worldwide dissemination.

Lenovo, the official computing-equipment provider for the Turin Olympics, is supplying 6,000 workstations, 700 notebook computers and 600 printers for the games. But for the company, which acquired IBM's personal computing division in 2005, participating in the games is more than an opportunity to clear out a few warehouses. It's a unique chance to build a brand that — until recently — was not widely known outside of China.

"One of our first objectives is really to increase the brand awareness around the name Lenovo," said Philippe Davy, vice president for the Olympic Games project at Lenovo. "We really think that there is an opportunity for us as a company, which needs to get this recognition, to really demonstrate to the world that our product and our people are really world class."

Aside from supplying computing technology for the Olympic facilities, Lenovo is also providing infrastructure for other partners and sponsors, including General Electric's NBC, which will televise the games in the U.S.; Coca-Cola; Visa; and Bank of America. Lenovo will also run seven Internet lounges for athletes, trainers, coaches and journalists.

With billions of dollars on the line — not to mention the prestige and fame associated with winning the actual athletic competitions — systems reliability and performance are essential.

"We have to provide the solution no matter what happens, whether from an environmental point of view, weather, political revolution, accident, whatever," said Enrico Frascari, director of technologies for the Turin Olympics organizing committee.

Atos Origin recently completed the final technical rehearsal for the games, which simulated the three busiest days of the Olympics, testing 500 different scenarios ranging from hardware failures to security attacks. To ensure reliability, Atos Origin and Telecom Italia created a fully redundant system, essentially doubling every part of the infrastructure from the network to a secretly located backup data center.

"The goal is to make sure that competitions and our customers are not impacted with whatever may happen to the network," Noblot said. "We don't have a second chance, and even if we have a disaster in a data center, we have to be able to provide services."

System reliability is also the reason the organizing committee chose a traditional, circuit-based telephone system instead of newer, voice-over-Internet-Protocol telephony, says Pierfrancesco Di Giuseppe, president of Nortel Italy. Canada-based Nortel Networks designed and is managing the Turin Olympics' telephone system, which includes more than 11,000 phones in locations ranging from stadiums and media centers to the hotel rooms inside the Olympic villages.

"The key goal engraved in stone when the joint team began the work was reliability," Di Giuseppe said. "Should anything happen, whether an avalanche or a terrorist attack, we want a system that will keep working. That's the most important thing."

With the amount of attention the games receive, information security is especially important to mitigate any attempts hackers may make to overtake systems, corrupt data or skew competition results. Noblot says Atos Origin is using a security product by Computer Associates to automatically monitor the infrastructure in real time. This will allow IT staff to focus their efforts on actual problems instead of false alarms.

And while all this sounds like an awful lot of time, work and equipment, at least one man hopes that none of the 1 million spectators in Italy and billions of television viewers around the world will notice a thing.

"The competition would not be possible without technology, but its purpose is to be kept hidden behind the scenes," said Claude Philipps, program director of the Turin Olympics for Atos Origin. "It's kind of frustrating."