Olympics and tech: 'No room to fail' (Q&A)

The Winter Games in Vancouver, which kick off Friday, rely on thousands of servers and PCs to manage everything from scores to travel plans. Magnus Alvarsson has to make sure everything is working.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
5 min read
The Whistler Sliding Centre is one of the many venues for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games.
The Whistler Sliding Centre is one of the many venues for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games. © VANOC/COVAN

There are numerous companies whose electronics gear goes into making the Olympics happen, but the responsibility for pulling all that technology together rests largely on the shoulders of Magnus Alvarsson.

As lead integrator for tech firm Atos Origin, Alvarsson is in charge of making sure all the PCs, phones, servers, and other gear are up and running so that the judges can judge, the athletes can perform, and the media can write about it all. Their systems handle, among other things, volunteer coordination, reporting of medical issues, and the accreditation of athletes and other Games personnel.

Alvarsson Atos Origin

"The world is basically watching and we have no room to fail," Alvarsson said in a telephone interview last month.

Luckily for Alvarsson, it's his fifth Olympics, so he says he is starting to get the hang of things.

"The toughest one for you to do is your first Olympics," he said. "Once you have been through the project once, you understand the rhythm. It gets easier and easier every time."

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. Next week, I plan to tour the technology operations center and give a firsthand report as part of our on-the-scene coverage from Vancouver of what makes the Olympics tick.

How many people, servers, etc. does it take to do what you are doing?
Alvarsson: On the ground here employed by Atos Origin in Vancouver, we are about 115 people. The cool thing there is we are 32 nationalities (represented) in those 115 people. During the Games I get help from the rest of (the company). We will be about 250 people here just specialized on running major events. The full scope of the people we have to manage including the rest of the partners and volunteers is about 2,000--Acer, Sun, Avaya, and so forth.

There's about 800 servers that go into the full solution and about 6,000 PCs. It's about 800 networking devices as well.

What are some of the trickiest parts of pulling it together?
Alvarsson: We're a technology company and I think to me the trickiest part is not really the technology. The trickiest part is really to integrate the people, processes, and procedures outside of the technology.

There is a big consortium. We have Atos Origin being a predominately European company. Obviously here in Canada, the organizing committee is Canadian. We have partners like Samsung from Korea and Panasonic from Japan. What we need to do is get everyone to pull together as one team and work as one team and march to the same beat, so to speak. For me, this is probably the trickiest part.

There are obviously other challenges every single Games. I think one we are very aware of in Vancouver and right now, and specifically for the Winter Games, is the huge dependency we have on weather. That shows both during the Games and even prior to the Games. We plan properly because usually we can't put cables in the ground when it is covered by snow or is frozen, so we have to make sure it is done early. It makes it tougher to make changes.

What has been a lot in the media here is the fact that we don't necessarily have enough snow in all of the venues. This is an interesting challenge for the organizing committee. It's also a challenge for us as technology (providers). We probably have to be a bit creative. We're actually working through this right now, what impact it might have. For example, they are talking about moving different tents or different locations where we deliver technology. We might have to redo cabling and things like that.

It seems like security is one of the big challenges. Was that a major investment?
I can't talk very much about security. We usually don't do that before the Games. What we don't want to do is entice people to try our security. I can tell you a little bit. We basically have put the solution together that has been used for a couple of Games and that we keep refining.

In Beijing, we had about 17 million security events. Our solution is basically shifting through these events to remove false positives and really come up with those we have to focus on, which out of those 17 million was about 30 that we needed to look quite hard at. The trick is that we need to have zero impact on the Games in the end. So far this is what we managed to deliver. When I talk about a security event, it can be something as simple as trying to log in to a workstation and using the wrong password, which I do on a daily basis.

A lot of folks have probably never heard of Atos Origin. Can you tell me a little bit about what kind of company it is and how it came to be the one pulling all of this technology together?
Alvarsson: Atos Origin is a worldwide IT service company. We're based out of Paris, France. We are about 50,000 people working in more than 40 countries. We do system integration, managed operation and consulting. There is a division within the company that does major events that is based in Barcelona. We are at any given point in time about 250 people.

The first time we were involved in any Olympic Games was the Barcelona games in 1992. Between 1992 and 2000 we were involved in every Olympics but we were a contractor or a supplier. In 1998 the IOC went out and searched for a new worldwide IT partner and it was an open bid. We won that contract in 1998 with the first Olympics in 2002. Since 2002, we have done all the Olympics. The contract was to go through 2008. In 2005, we extended through London (in 2012) and we have extended to continue through Rio (in 2016). The contract continues to grow.

Which is the busier time for you--is it the time leading up to the Games or the Games themselves?
Alvarsson: The busiest time is now to the first couple of days, maybe the first five days of the Games. Right now we are very busy to deploy all the venues. There's a lot of people coming into the town now. A lot of our customers are coming in now and setting up the infrastructure so we have to make sure all of that works. There's a lot of work to make sure we have all the information in the systems. We need to have biographies, you need to have background information on the venues, the judges, the sports. On top of that it has to be translated into French as well.