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Tackling an IT job of Olympic proportions

CNET News.com talks with Claude Philipps, chief technology integrator for the Athens Olympics, to learn how he plans to manage what promises to be one of the most demanding IT deployments in the world.

Think you've got a tough IT project to complete? Consider what's on Claude Philipps' plate.

The job involves managing a network that unites everything from Unix servers to precision timing devices. After installing several redundant systems, he must guarantee 24/7 reliability and instantaneous performance on a tight budget. And just to make things even more interesting, all this must take place in a foreign capital with a sometimes shaky power grid.

Welcome to Athens, where Philipps is chief technology integrator for Schlumberger for the 2004 Olympic Games. The event will mark the second set of games at which the consulting firm will be responsible for ensuring that an intimidating grab bag of technology parts works flawlessly together.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded Schlumberger the contract to manage IT resources for the games after longtime contractor IBM suffered several embarrassing glitches that led to long delays in communicating results for key events at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Schlumberger, which got through last year's winter games in Salt Lake City without any major incidents, is on track in Athens, where the IT team recently ported over all the major processes used at the Utah location. Last week, the company announced that it implemented an identity and access management system for the Athens games, combining a physical ID badge and scanning system with back-office database applications.

Even so, this is one contract where Philipps knows there's no wiggle room in deadlines. With delivery dates absolutely fixed eight years in advance, he has to get it right the first time.

"That's the tricky thing about this project--the dates can't move, as they often do on other IT projects," Phillips said. "There are no second chances." Philipps recently spoke with CNET News.com about the truly Olympian nature of the IT challenges associated with the games.

Q: Can you start by giving us a sense of the size of the Athens work?
A: The scope of what we're doing is that we're providing...key applications, we're providing integration services, we're working with the IOC and a consortium of best-of-breed providers in each area. We aggregate all the equipment, data and network resources together. We rehearse everything in a huge integration lab we have here. During the games, we lead the IT partners to run the integration during the games. Basically, we look at the best way of putting everything together.

How much hardware are we talking about?
We're putting together an architecture that's quite big for a short period, but that's how it works. We have around 10,000 desktops, 500 laptops, 400 Unix servers, plus another 450 Windows servers.

There are around 16,000 media people, and we provide them with ready-to-use tools that are focused on real-time results, so they can bring news to the world as it happens. This is part of what we call the results system. This is the critical piece that cannot fail. We have to get it right on the first try.

How do you make sure that happens?
We spent the last year testing and testing and testing again, rehearsing, reviewing contingency plans. We go through a lot of "what if" scenarios--what if we have a power failure, what if the network blows, what if the people cannot show up at the venues because of traffic or whatever? It's all about contingency plans, putting together plan B, plan C. For some really critical tasks, we have four or five backups.

Does that become a bigger challenge in Greece, where the public infrastructure probably isn't quite as advanced as Salt Lake City?
It's true. The resources are different from country to country. We're implementing our own infrastructure, making sure everything is securely backed up. There are several different lines for power provisioning. We have UPSs (uninterruptible power supplies) on site, diesel generators on site. We cannot afford a power failure.

How does the size of the Athens projects compare with Salt Lake City?
The summer games are two to three times bigger as far the number of sports, the number of athletes, the number of media people. As far as venues, we had about 40 in Salt Lake City, including 10 competition venues. We're looking at 70, including 35 competition venues, in Athens. We had 2,400 athletes in Salt Lake City, and we have 10,500 in Athens. There are 37 sports in the summer game, compared to 15 in Salt Lake City.

As a good example, one of those summer sports, track and field, on its own is bigger than all the winter sports put together.

So do the IT resources scale up in relation?
Oh, yes. We had half the number of desktops in Salt Lake City compared to what we're installing here. There were about 450 servers in Salt Lake City, compared to the 850 we have here.

Technology is one of the big costs of the games.
What are some of the lessons you're applying from the winter games?
When the IOC awarded the contract, one of the key things for them was reducing the cost of putting on the games, just so it's more affordable to Third World countries. Technology is one of the big costs of the games, so reducing the cost was a decision implemented through a knowledge management program.

From Salt Lake City on, we tracked everything--how many people did we hire for each position, how many people did we have at any given time? All the information we tracked down, and after the games we did a series of after-action reviews where we reviewed all the data...to see what we could do to make things happen better and cheaper the next time. We looked at everything--the starting plan, the number of volunteers, the amount of equipment, decisions about tools, decisions about what level of redundancy was appropriate in each area.

Are those tough decisions to make, given the reliability demands?
Sure, because you always want to do more. But we found places we could cut back without compromising performance. The IT budget for Salt Lake City was around $300 million. For the summer games, we don't have the budget finalized yet--but the trend is to go for something very similar, like $350 million even though the amount of work is two to three times bigger. And we're on track to do that.

You deal with some pretty unusual IT situations. How do you find people who are expert at networking precision timing systems with back-end servers, for example?
We use several different levels of skills. We have a team that has Olympics games experience in several areas--technical areas, logistics, etc. And we rely on our partners. For Unix, for example, Sun is supplying a lot of talent.

How big a concern is security?
All the Olympics games are very highly visible events. Our goal is to implement quite strong preventive measures against any breach of security or denial-of-service attack.

Our goal is to implement quite strong preventive measures against any breach of security or denial-of-service attack.

We're using both people awareness and a good suite of tools that helps us at every level--from the very technical level to the managerial level, so everyone has a good sense what the issues are. This is deployed very early, because we're dealing with sensitive information from very early in the process, like private data on athletes or VIPs.

You decided in Salt Lake City to because of security concerns. Any change in your position on Wi-Fi?
We're doing the same thing in Athens. The IOC thinks--and we agree--that the security is not major enough to be used for such an event. I think the trend is in favor of wireless and we'll be able to do that at some future games, but not now.

How did IBM's problems in Atlanta affect the way you're approaching the Olympics?
I won't comment on IBM's accomplishments previously. But the experiences the IOC had from that era were translated in their bid and the contract we have.

The two key aspects we are obliged to meet is to get a good knowledge transfer to make the games cheaper and cheaper and to make it more reliable by using mature technology. We're not a hardware provider. We're agnostic; we implement whatever technology we need on any hardware. (Editors' note: Athens Olympics sponsors include Dell Computer for PCs and Sun Microsystems for servers.)

We're not using the games to showcase any fancy products. We're arranging it to show we can deliver the job on time and on target. We're using this quite challenging project to show we can do this one, and if we can do a project like this that is quite in front of the world, because no failure is acceptable, we can do quite a job for our usual customers.

Are you using any open-source software to cut costs?
No. It's not a religion that we use this or that. Sun is a sponsor and is providing Solaris (Sun's version of Unix), so that's what we use. Maybe for the next games we use Linux.