Beijing Prepares for 'High-tech Olympics'

All over Beijing, Olympic countdown clocks tick off the seconds that China has awaited for seven years: the moments until Aug. 8, 2008, at 8:00 pm, when the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics begin.

Perhaps the most important competition involving the Olympics will not take place during 16 days in August, but occurred in 2000 and 2001, when Beijing challenged Istanbul, Osaka, Toronto and Paris for the right to be the host city. Seven years and 26 days before the opening ceremonies would begin, Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympic Games. Like firing a starter's pistol, the award began the race to build the IT infrastructure to stage and support one of the world's largest and most watched sporting events.

One of the three themes of the Beijing Olympics is to make it a "High-tech Olympics." According to the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad (BOCOG), the event will incorporate "the latest domestic and international scientific and technological achievements" and serve as "a window to showcase the city's high-tech achievements and its innovative strength." With a published operating budget of US$2 billion, BOCOG has estimated the technology portion of the budget at over $400 million for 449 science and technology projects, although it has not delineated what those projects are.

Although the systems are designed specifically for a large sporting event, those implemented for an Olympics can transform a city -- often the impetus for an Olympic bid itself. After the 16 days of competition -- followed by 11 days of the Paralympic Games starting Sept. 6 -- what will be the legacy of the Games' IT infrastructure for Beijing?

For a man in his position, Jeremy Hore seems awfully calm. A native of Australia, the chief integrator of the 2008 Olympics did not work on the Sydney Games but spent six months with his company, Atos Origin, working on the Athens Games, and another six weeks for the 2006 winter Games in Turin.

Preparing for the Olympics is like no other feat of project management. "The most difficult thing is that the deadline is 100 percent fixed. On other projects, you can delay if you really need to, even if it has a bad impact."

Beyond that, its scale is unlike any other event. The soccer World Cup takes place over a slightly longer period and sometimes a wider area, but far fewer athletes participate in only 64 events, and because there is only one sport with a single clock to monitor game time, the data requirements are much lower.

In contrast, the summer Olympics features 28 sports and 302 events. They will be spread out over seven cities, as far north as Shenyang, down to Hong Kong in the south. The Games involve 75 venues, 39 of them for competition. About 200,000 accreditations will be issued for athletes, officials, media and others, and during the Games, more than a million pages of information will be served each day.

Take a fixed deadline and the world's largest single event of its type, and add to that the project manager's parameters -- limitations on which vendors' equipment and services may be used. "You don't have as much control over choices because of sponsorships and partnerships," Hore said. That means working with designated vendors, in this case companies such as China Netcom, China Mobile and Lenovo. However, he didn't see it as a hurdle. "It's quite interesting, working with so many different partners and sponsors." And unlike a normal corporate arrangement, it is BOCOG that negotiates with the vendors, not Hore or Atos Origin.

IT planning for the Games began in 2003 with the creation of a master plan. Forty to 50 percent of systems planning is carried over from one Olympics to the next, and then adapted to local conditions. In 2004, Hore and his team began designing the fully-redundant systems, determining their requirements and what would be needed for testing. The following year they concentrated on building the systems and testing facilities, so that in 2006 they could begin the two years of trials required by the Olympics committees.

Just as athletes train for years for the Games, IT people test and test again, with 200,000 hours of trials in total. Atos dedicated about 100 people who have done nothing but conduct tests. Some systems, such as those for managing accommodations for athletes, families and Games personnel, had to be operational three years in advance. The volunteer system needed to go in two years ahead of time.

Ahead of the Olympics, each venue and system handles a test event, usually a national competition or world championship that provides a live environment to put the gear and its operators through their paces. The IOC's sporting federation for each sport must sign off on the test results following its event.

Atos Origin will also hold two full-scale, three-day technical rehearsals prior to the Olympics, simulating operation of the systems and introducing about 700 scenarios to see how the systems and technical personnel respond. Scenarios can include IT-related issues, such as a security breach or a fire in substation, or non-IT issues, like a large number of staff contracting food poisoning and rendered unable to reach their stations. Atos completed the first of these on April 3, declaring it a success. The second rehearsal is this week, from June 9 to 13.

The Games utilizes two main cores of IT infrastructure, both developed by Atos Origin: the Games Management System (GMS), which supports planning and operation of the Games, including staffing, accommodation, travel, and medical operations; and the Information Diffusion Systems (IDS), which includes timing and scoring by Omega. Atos employed its first version of this system in Barcelona in 1992. For Beijing, the GMS was developed in Java and includes some open-source components such as the JBoss application server and Apache Tomcat Web server.

There is also the Commentator Information System (CIS), a Java-based system which provides broadcasters with instantaneous, touch-screen access to results and athlete biographies, so they can relay information about events in progress to audiences worldwide. The IDS also includes the official Web site, operated by Sohu.com, and data feeds for media and sporting federations. The CIS has an additional component this year, the Remote CIS, to offer the same information available at venues in offsite locations, including in other countries, for broadcasters and news outlets internationally.

In designing both systems, Hore said it was important to maintain "a core that is strong, reliable and robust." Their main choice was Unix, although Hore said the choice was neither exclusive nor a rejection of any other operating system. "We're not using any Linux in Beijing. We may use it in the future, but we are not using it today," he said. "It's what's the best at the time we make the decision," which was four or five years ago. For that reason, Windows Vista is not used in the Olympic systems, although XP appears on many desktops.

Lenovo has provided 10,000 computers including KTS 660 desktops; Thinkpad T60 and E680 laptops; 5,000 results terminals, split evenly between the CIS and the Games intranet; 4,000 printers, and 1,000 servers, including models R520, G4Y, R630 and R650.

If the swimming venue is the Water Cube, then the Digital Headquarters (DHQ), the Olympic IT hub, can only be called the Borg Cube. A charcoal gray building at the northwest corner of the Olympic Park, its few windows, most of which appear on the building's east side, face both the Water Cube and the Bird's Nest, the Beijing Games' iconic stadium, providing unparalleled views.

In addition to housing the desktop hardware used by each of the 28 sports during the testing phase, DHQ is also home to a 300 square-meter datacenter, one of two used to handle the Olympics data. A second, identical datacenter is maintained at an undisclosed location, for redundancy and security. After testing is completed this month, much of the equipment will move to the respective venues for each sport. Each venue is designed to function independently, Hore said.

During the Games Hore will remain in the DHQ's inner sanctum, the Technology Operations Center (TOC). Staffed 24 hours per day beginning in July, 150 staff, including network and Unix specialists, will provide support in rotating shifts to operations at the venues. The Games' Incident Management System resides at the TOC, detecting any problems at the venues, prioritizing them and assigning support personnel.

One technology that will get a run-out, albeit a limited one, during the Olympics is IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6). It does a better job of supporting applications like videoconferencing and high-definition television than its predecessor, IPv4, and offers opportunities for lower-cost construction of security networks and monitoring devices.

While time is running out on the number of IP addresses available to the world's Internet users, the problem is localized, so the clock won't strike midnight everywhere simultaneously. For China, which now has the world's largest Internet population, the witching hour for IP addresses could be as soon as 2010 or 2011, according to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

"The deployments of IPv6 around the world are led by what is happening in Asia," said Matt Kolon, vice president of technical operations for Juniper Networks APAC. "Traditionally, IPv6 in Japan has been seen as the leader in deployment and research and development, but China has come on in the last few years."

By using IP networks, combined with Wi-Fi and other wireless technologies, Beijing can expand its video surveillance network at the Olympics beyond wired areas, so the extent of the network becomes a function only of bandwidth. The network is enlarged simply by adding more cameras and, if necessary, wireless network repeaters.

Security monitoring for the Olympics includes not only the Olympic Park, but the entire city of Beijing. Using China's existing IPv6 infrastructure, central monitoring of the Olympic Park, traffic throughout the city, and any number of other locations becomes cost-effective. Central control could be established with an analog network, but expansion and remote monitoring are far more difficult, and may require the construction of smaller, local monitoring stations.

The Chinese Education and Research Network (CERNET) is supporting IPv6 wireless applications designed for the Games, including receivers placed in 15,000 taxis which transmit their location and local traffic conditions to a central control room. IPv6 will also support the lighting controls in Olympic venues and security systems around Beijing.

Beyond the Games and its ultimate importance to Chinese network capacity, the near-term for IPv6 in China is less than rosy. "[IPv6] development and service offerings are promoted by the government, rather than the carriers," said Fang Meiqin, senior consultant at Beijing-based technology consultancy and research firm BDA. "Carriers find that IPv6 cannot bring in new objective applications, not significantly different than the IPv4 apps, so they don't want to invest. IPv6 can bring in better security and higher quality of service; however, this is not apparent to users."

Fang thought it unlikely that visitors to the Games would realize IPv6 was in use at all. "I don't think it's the public or the ordinary consumer that will notice any significance of this. It's mainly for the organizers' and government usage, such as video surveillance. I don't think it will support a big variety of IPv6 applications. It's more to transmit data for government applications."

So while IPv6 may help the security forces and other Games staff to watch the millions of spectators, it is doubtful that it will help spectators watch the Games.

In that sense, the Beijing Olympics may fall short of its quest to be a "High-tech Olympics," at least in terms of advances that can be enjoyed by visitors from developed nations. As a case in point, China is technically making good on its promise to offer 3G services during the Olympics -- but only for people affiliated with BOCOG who received one of 15,000 handsets that Samsung, one of the Games' sponsors, gave to the Committee. China Mobile, another sponsor, will offer a 3G service using China's TD-SCDMA standard. 3G customers from other nations, such as Japan, Korea, and the U.K., will not be able to use their 3G phones in Beijing.

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