IBM torch flickering

Hoping its technology encounters smoother sailing than its political dealings with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), IBM is putting the finishing touches on the mammoth IT operation that will support this month's Olympics in Sydney.

Hoping its technology implementations encounter smoother sailing than its political dealings with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), IBM is putting the finishing touches on the mammoth IT operation that will support this month's Summer Olympics in Sydney.

The dispute with the IOC, largely regarding the scope of IBM's IT sponsorship and involving the exclusive rights to distribute content via the Internet, will likely end the company's 40-year association with the Olympics.

But despite the political turmoil, IBM has deployed enough hardware and software to comfortably run a corporate-scale e-business for the 17 days and nights of the Games.

Fueling the discord was the IOC's recognition of what a lucrative opportunity Internet sponsorship and distribution rights represent. So instead of giving over those rights to IBM for one lump sum, the IOC will now shop them to the highest bidders, which figures to generate significantly more revenue.

"The online medium is like no other the [IOC] has experienced in the past. And the Olympics, if you think about it, are inherently free. The IOC is already capitalising on the broadcasting rights to NBC. At the same time, they have to recognise that online is a different type of medium [which] you can't quantify on the traditional basis," says Rob Martin, senior Internet analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Company, in Arlington, Virgnia.

IBM officials say they are expecting the total number of hits on the official Sydney site ( to be about 6.5 billion, or 10 times that of the Winter Olympics held in Nagano, Japan, two years ago.

With an elaborate caching system in place, Tom Furey, general manager of worldwide Olympic technology at IBM, says he expects no problems with IBM's Olympic Web site performance.

Furey says the site will be supported by AT&T.

"There will be no hang-up on our Web servers or downloading from our side," Furey says, sounding every bit the confident coach on the eve of the Games.

To handle the tidal wave of Internet attention and the Games' massive internal systems requirements, as of last week IBM has in place three S/390 mainframes with Parallel Sysplex capabilities, 50 RS/6000s, three RS/6000 SP servers, 540 Intel-based Netfinity servers, 7,300 PCs, 50 ThinkPad portable systems, 845 network switches, 7,000 monitors, and 1,655 printers.

As part of its core IT solution, IBM has set up three basic systems: the Games Management Systems, the Games Results System, and INFO, an intranet-based information resource for the 260,000 members of the Olympic family. All three of these sites will interact with one another to share information across a multitiered infrastructure.

The Games Results System will receive competitive results from the venue results applications and distribute them to 15,000 members of the media and the 700 printers. At the venues, the printed results can be distributed to International Sport Federation officials, athletes, and coaches.

The Games Management System consists of a set of applications that will handle the logistical and administrative aspects of the Games. IBM has developed applications for tasks such as accreditation, medical operations, processing arrivals and departures, and incident tracking.

The competition results applications collect competition data and distribute it to broadcasters and venue scoreboards. These applications are venue-specific, so if one venue happens to experience technical problems, the other venues can continue scoring and reporting.

IBM is using DB2, WebSphere, Lotus Domino, and Net.Commerce to power the official Games site. The company's Hot Media software allows visitors to the site's Olympic store to inspect selected items by rotating them.

Playing a central role is DB2, which will be used to collect and manage live results data and to help ensure data integrity and accuracy for the Games' scoring system.

To help manage the systems, IBM subsidiary Tivoli is providing a slew of products to coordinate applications and the Games' 10,000-device infrastructure as IBM performs its likely Olympics swan song.

Tivoli Systems has deployed Tivoli NetView and NetView for OS to manage the network and systems, Tivoli Software Distribution for all servers and desktops, and Tivoli Enterprise Console to provide a single view of the enterprise with availability and failure rules, says Karl Freund, senior vice president of marketing at the Austin, Texas-based company.

Overall, IBM has developed 12 million lines of new code to run the Games' 37 sports results systems, deploy TV feeds and support broadcasters with commentator information, provide central feeds to information intranets at the Sydney Olympic Village, and supply print distribution systems.

Finalising the sports results systems proved particularly tricky, Freund says, because each unique report generated during a contest -- shooting contains over 144 reports alone -- had to match the configuration requirements of the IOC, sports federations, and Olympics committees of 198 countries represented at the Games.

Despite the elaborate Olympic quality and management control processes in place to ensure data is properly collected and processed by IBM systems, Freund says the company is not ultimately responsible for the data's accuracy.

"There's nothing IBM can do about it. We can't possibly do anything more than post it," Freund says.

And because IBM does not possess the ability to provide automated international translations of data, results from the Games will be offered to media outlets only in English and French, Freund adds.

One scenario IBM is hoping to avoid is a reprise of the black eye its IT operations suffered in the last Summer Games held in Atlanta.

One of the most glaring failures during those Games were the long delays in generating scoring results from the individual venues back to journalists -- not the group of people you would want to be the first to find out about your technical problems.

IBM blamed the problem, in part, on an input-queue problem with its mainframes, which the company fixed after a couple of days. Company officials also said part of the problem related to how slowly venue managers approved the official results before they could be released, as well as slow modems chosen by some news agencies.

Underlying these problems was the late physical completion of several of the venues in Atlanta, which often left IBM with only two or three days to set up and test all the pieces of its infrastructure.

With a full six months to set up its Sydney operations, IBM officials say they have had ample time to install, configure, and do extensive testing on all pieces of its IT operations.

To ensure successful operations of those systems, three "simulated Games" rehearsals were held since July to address potential problems.

The benefits of those rehearsals, additional contingency plans, and past lessons learned should brace the IT team for potential systems breakdowns, according to Freund.

"It's been a real challenge because of the magnitude, but we believe we've tested it pretty thoroughly," Freund says. "We certainly can't anticipate every possible failure, but we can have the software in place to manage failures or bottlenecks, should they occur."

Business as usual restricts web coverage

Despite the technological advances that could catapult global viewership of the Summer Olympics, traditional business practices are stunting the Games' evolution toward a full-blown Internet spectacle.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) in December will take a closer look at the Internet's present and future influence on the celebrated event.

But only a major change in rights management by the IOC will satisfy the legions of wired Olympic fans who are rapidly coming to expect instant access to sports coverage, says Rob Martin, senior Internet analyst at Arlington, Virginia-based Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Company.

"The problem with the Web is [that] it's a community-based medium where people are going to get to what they want whether it's a commercial venue or not," Martin says. "The [IOC], to some extent, has to alter the dynamic of [its] rights management."

For the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, beginning Friday, Olympic organisers have gone to great lengths to ensure that their broadcast partners, who ponied up $US1.32 billion for exclusive television rights, won't see their content surfacing illegally on the Web. The measures have ranged from streaming video restrictions to outlawing personal diaries of Olympic athletes on the Web., joining as a sanctioned Web site of the Games, will be allowed to show only 20 minutes of video footage from Sydney of the previous day's events and only after tape-delayed NBC broadcasts, says Tom Newell, general manager at San Francisco-based National Broadcasting (NBC)/Quokka Ventures.

Although accustomed to the IOC's iron-fisted rule of Olympics coverage, many of the Internet's most popular sports Web sites are growing tired of being left in the cold.

"I think some short-sighted thinking has [led the IOC to say], 'Let's not tick off too many people. Let's have total control over media and radio and TV; the backlash will be limited,' " says Joe Ferreira, vice president of programming at Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based CBS "They're not taking advantage of this [Internet] platform enough because they've taken a defensive posture instead of an offensive posture."

As broadband and speedier Web connections reach home viewers by the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games in 2002, monopolising Olympic content will only generate more gripes among media outlets and sports fans, Ferreira adds.

Other IT players in the Olympics

The roster of resource providers includes numerous international heavyweights.

Telstra: Infrastructure, operations, and network maintenance

AT&T: Hosting, caching technology

Eastman Kodak: Security pass badging systems, photographic and still imaging

Xerox: Printers and document processing devices

Panasonic: Audiovisual and broadcast equipment

Samsung Electronics: Wireless telecommunications

Swiss Timing: Timing devices

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