As the Winter Olympics get under way today, one of the main narratives emerging from Sochi, Russia so far is that of gross incompetence, unfinished construction projects,, and a general sense that corruption has been the biggest winner.
Yet, with thousands of Olympic athletes and tens of thousands of spectators arriving in Sochi, the show must still go on. The opening ceremonies are tonight, and soon, skiers, skaters, lugers, and so many others will be competing for precious gold as millions of people around the world watch. Behind it all is a massive technology infrastructure, years in the making, that simply has to stand up to the challenges presented by one of the world's largest sporting events.
It's kind of hard to imagine that with some construction still under way even as visitors arrive in Sochi, officials would be able to keep up and running a technology system tasked with recording and measuring the entire Olympics, broadcasting it around the world, and ensuring everything and everyone stays safe, come what may. But for Atos, the company behind the Olympics IT infrastructure, that's just part of the job.
Starting as much as seven years ago, and in earnest in 2010, Atos' teams have been methodically preparing for the Sochi Olympics. Drawing on many years of supporting the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and experience running IT at several previous Olympics, Atos told CNET that it has been laser-focused on making sure that its projects were completed on time and on budget, that it managed as much risk as possible, and that it worked closely with every other Sochi team.
The full scale of Atos' job is a bit hard to grasp. According to Patrick Adiba, the company's CEO of major events and the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Atos' contract with the IOC is the "largest IT sports-related contract in the world, and its requirements and challenges are beyond that of most organizations."
Adiba said that the Atos IT infrastructure is broken down into four main areas: games management systems meant to support the games' operations and planning; information diffusion systems that send out real-time competition results; "seamless" integration project management, design, testing, and security of the Olympics IT systems; and operations that require implementation and management of the entire infrastructure during Sochi.
For example, Adiba explained that the technology infrastructure is composed of 400 servers, 1,000 security network devices, and 5,600 computers that are responsible for things such as providing real-time Olympics information to 9,500 accredited broadcasters and members of the media. As well, it is delivering competition results to a global audience in less than a second; processing and activating accreditation badges for 200,000 "members of the Olympic Family;" and collecting and processing data for all of the more than 5,500 athletes taking part in the games.
Security and testing
Given that the Olympics in general and Sochi in particular are potential terrorist and hacker targets, Atos said that it has put special emphasis on ensuring its many IT systems stay secure. This is a major task, Adiba explained. "Small events could trigger big consequences, [and] the same issue happening at different times can have different consequences," he said. "Therefore, our systems and teams have to be prepared to evaluate the level of severity of each and every issue and act accordingly."
For this reason, and many others, Atos runs more than 100,000 hours of systems testing, preparing for 9,000 different scenarios, in advance of the Olympics. In preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics, the company first set up shop in Moscow in 2010, and its teams arrived in Sochi in 2012. Since then, it has run 70 sport test events, and two technical rehearsals during which almost 500 scenarios were tested to ensure that Atos' people, systems, and procedures were "ready to respond to any situation that could arise," Adiba explained.
Yet, as is the case in any environment involving complex systems, things might go wrong. "Our job is to minimize the risk so that there is no impact," Adiba said, "on the competition, the athletes, the media, or the spectators."
In order to address countless potential security problems and identify issues that deserve Atos' attention, Atos expects to collect and filter millions of "IT security events" every day. During the 2012 summer Olympics in London, Adiba said, Atos looked at more than 12 million such events each day and discovered that "less than 100 were identified as real issues. All were resolved, so there was no impact at all on the Olympic Games."
The Russian government and Sochi officials are adamant that the games will get off to a very smooth start and that reports of problems with the infrastructure are overblown.
Unfortunately, those officials are going to have a hard time overcoming the impression that things were not going well in the lead-up to the opening ceremonies. For example, an NBC News report highlighted how quickly Sochi visitors are being hacked, and The Washington Post ran a story that gathered reports from members of the media about how poorly prepared the city's brand-new hotels are to handle guests.
But now it's showtime, and the truth will make itself known within days. If problems like those that have propagated in the media continue, there's little anyone, from IOC officials to Sochi city personnel, can do to stop people from talking about it and spreading those impressions around the world.
Atos, on the other hand, has years of Olympics experience to lean on, and there's reason to believe that whatever else is going on in Sochi, the technology supporting the games will work as planned. If so, Atos will be an unheralded hero. If the company's huge infrastructure isn't up to the task, however, there's no doubt it will be crucified in the public arena. Only time will tell.