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Whether running a marathon or a relay, the London 2012 networking team turned in a platinum medal-winning performance
What’s the most precious commodity in any major project? Ask anyone who’s ever managed a large-scale international undertaking against an immovable deadline and you’ll get a single answer: time.
You certainly can’t buy it—but you can create it. Tim Boden and his colleagues saw that strict attention to testing in the London 2012 project’s early stages would release resources later when the pressure was really on.
And so it turned out. Unanimous praise for BT from London 2012 stakeholders was as much about its people’s unruffled attention to their needs in the run-up to the Games as it was about technical excellence.
It’s inconceivable that we could have delivered the 2012 Games without BT on board. We needed someone we could trust and who could provide the technical know-how and the creative solutions to ensure the London 2012 Games were the very best they could be. BT gave us all of this.”
- Sebastian Coe, Chair, LOCOG
What’s the most appropriate sporting metaphor for the Olympic Games infrastructure project? It’s a seven-year marathon, that’s for sure. But it’s also a relay, with the baton needing to be safely and surely passed from planning and design to installation, testing, and finally in-life operations. And ultimately it’s a team game too—played out under the public spotlight’s glare.
“To be candid, one of the primary goals is simply to not trip up when you’re out on the track,” Howard Dickel, London 2012 Delivery Director at BT Global Services, says wryly, “as there’s nothing newscasters find more entertaining than someone falling flat on their face.” The opposite and much more rewarding side of that coin is that when the entire event is a flawless success, as the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games assuredly was, the media is fulsome in its praise.
So, viewed from a networking perspective, what were the vital ingredients that contributed to that happy outcome? “In a project of this nature,” continues Howard Dickel, “risk management and delivery focus are key attributes for a winning team.”
The appointment of BT as official communications services partner, from among other service providers claiming to be able to fulfil the London 2012 brief, was one of the first and most important risk management decisions taken by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) team.
When the BT Global Services team swung into action, its leaders set core risk management principles and posted logical milestones along the route leading to 2012. Among those core principles was the fact that only tried and tested technology would be used; while the milestones included a moratorium on design changes before the Games opened, as well as rigidly-prescribed testing schedules. “While the Olympic Games are certainly all about heroics,” says Tim Boden, London 2012 Business Technology Director at BT Global Services, “the Olympic Games networking project is definitely not.”
London 2012 was previewed as the most connected Olympic and Paralympic Games ever, a prediction that proved more than true. There’s a thread of DNA running down the years, right the way back to 1896, and it’s normal for succeeding Games teams to learn from their predecessors. BT Global Services certainly did that, but with technology evolving at such a rapid pace, it also knew how and why things had moved on.
At Beijing 2008, for instance, a private network was provided for photographers’ images to be copied back to the main press centre (MPC) for editing and transmission. At London 2012 they would be sent across the BT infrastructure wirelessly and in real time direct from cameras as well as via laptops. That affected planning assumptions for Olympic network capacity between venues and the MPC and took considerable optimisation and testing efforts. But London 2012 would serve up other unique communications challenges, which meant planning for the art of the possible while expecting the unexpected too.
For example, if one thing is certain about journalists and broadcasters it’s that they’ll always act unpredictably. So while it’s possible to plan for likely usage profiles, one can’t guarantee that that’s how the media will use the network facilities when they arrive. And vital clues weren’t available from pre-Olympic test events because the global press were largely uninvolved in those.
“One can’t impose a vanilla solution on the media,” says Tim Boden, “because they’re always innovating and one has to learn along with them. So there was heavy help desk interaction when they turned up at the beginning of the Games.”
Security enhancement was a classic case: the BT Global Services network had been taught to look out for anomalous behaviours. So when press photographers moved around venues to get the best shots, connecting into different network zones, the network thought hackers were at large and closed the suspect ports down. Elsewhere, a major broadcaster wanted to run video multicasts to its entire staff in all venues, but hadn’t requested the facility in advance. “Our job was to provide guidance and find fixes,” adds Tim. “Most times tuning the network configuration; other times working with the customer to find more effective ways of working.”
In addition, BT Global Services had to co-operate with and co-ordinate the activities of eleven other technology partner companies. “Some of those relationships ran like clockwork,” says Howard Dickel, “while others were less easy. One company had to refer every single decision to its corporate headquarters, which meant we were constantly chasing answers.”
But how does one manage in such a fluid and dynamic environment? Normal programme management frameworks tend to impose a straitjacket. While they’re important in the planning and implementation phases, a more agile way of acting upon day-to-day issues is required.
“The principles for success are flexibility and continuous learning,” says Gary Symes, London 2012 Service Management Director in BT Global Services. “During the run-up to London 2102, the practical approach was a daily call at 07.30 to go through a key issues list and share ideas. That practice continued into Games-time too.”
Another London 2012 discipline was to not make major network configuration changes while the Games were taking place. Doing that overnight meant essential testing procedures were followed to the letter. Of course, however, the BT team offered turnarounds measured in minutes for simple help desk requests such as changing international call barring.
Across a network designed to handle up to 60Gbps of traffic, the maximum measured throughput was nearly 7Gbps, of which a quarter was internet traffic. Not surprisingly, the media placed the greatest demands upon the infrastructure, while public and LOCOG traffic was a comparatively small proportion. “Did we over-provide?” asks Gary Symes. “Not if you think for a moment about the alternative. Our risk management principles required us to take account of all possible eventualities, and the fact that we were well within our planned capacity is a testament to that.”
One initially puzzling consequence was a large number of help desk calls, taken early in the Games, from photographers complaining that their pictures weren’t being transmitted. On investigation the problem was found to be that the coloured bar on their screens—showing how long the wireless transfer would take, and normally creeping along—was gone before they’d even had time to register it.
Core network availability was 100 per cent: in terms of Severity Level 1 faults—categorised as affecting an entire venue or a major facility such as the IPC—there were precisely zero. In fact, across all 94 venues only minor service-affecting incidents were reported over the 19 days of the Olympic Games and 12 days of the Paralympic Games, of which many were down to mis-operation or the attempted use of non-standard equipment, and all were cleared within the two-hour service level agreement.
That’s even more remarkable when taken against London 2012 as the most connected Olympic Games ever—its complexity underlined by the statistical read-out.
For example, the networking team clocked up one million hours delivering the communications infrastructure, along the way installing more than 5,500 kilometres of optical fibre in the 94 venues. There were 11,500 fixed telephones originating and answering 500,000 calls between them. The number of BT Wi-fi hotspots reached 500,000 in the London area including, in the Olympic Park, the largest ever high-density Wi-fi installation. A total of 961 terabytes of information was carried over the network, while the london2012.com website recorded more than 20 billion page views.
Not only the most connected ever, London 2012 was also the most digital Olympic Games ever, with the amount of video and other internet content carried on Britain’s mobile networks surpassing all records. When Bradley Wiggins won cycling gold it saw more data carried over mobile operators’ networks per second than past peaks marked by the Royal Wedding and New Year’s Eve 2011. Usain Bolt becoming the first Olympian to retain both his sprint titles by winning the 200 metres, also made digital history by generating 80,000 tweets per minute. The BBC reported that of the 106 million requests for online Olympic video content received during the Games, 12 million were from smart phones.
Tim Boden says: “Returning to risk management, our testing methodologies included critical design reviews and the design definition environment at Adastral Park. In addition there were test events at places like Wimbledon and the London Marathon, as well as mandatory IOC technical rehearsals.”
The sheer thoroughness of that preparation bought precious time for BT Global Services, simply because there were no major problems. “Believe me,” adds Howard Dickel, “more than anything you’re judged on how you respond to stakeholders during the six-week run-up to Games-time. We’d given ourselves the bandwidth to focus on customers’ issues and everyone appreciated that.”
Another factor in that equation was that BT adapted its standard order-handling systems and processes for London 2012, meaning that there were no teething problems to attend to in that area either. In fact, Tim Boden says: “Among others, staff at several major global broadcasters remarked to me that London 2012 was easily the best Olympic Games service they’d experienced.” Along the way, NBC had its highest-ever viewing figures for an Olympic Games opening ceremony.
In terms of security, most nuisance incidents were picked up and dealt with by website and network perimeter defences, while others were false alarms caused by end users attempting to employ rogue equipment. Only one co-ordinated attack was identified during Games-time, and that was easily handled by provisions built into London 2012 hardware and processes.
Surely there must have been some things that went wrong? “Well,” admits Gary Symes, “there was some concern raised when we saw cellular traffic congestion during the cycling road race. There was no way that the infrastructure would be able to stand up when Bradley Wiggins competed in the time trial. So, within just 24 hours, we had to install new broadband links for extra timing points on the course.”
The legacy of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will not just live long in terms of the permanent uplift to a substantial area of east London, vitally important though that is. This time around, technology was seen to have a profound effect on how people interacted with the Games. BT believes that this will impact normal office environments by accelerating demands for new operating models such as bring-your-own-device, along with greater mobility and more flexible working.
“A total of 850 people are returning to BT ready to apply newfound skills and experience to challenging major projects,” says Howard Dickel. “Meanwhile new systems and processes designed for and honed at London 2012 will not only provide competitive advantage, but also potentially benefit other Olympic Games teams in the future.”
Sebastian Coe, LOCOG Chair, concludes: “It’s inconceivable that we could have delivered the 2012 Games without BT on board. We needed someone we could trust and who could provide the technical know-how and the creative solutions to ensure the London 2012 Games were the very best they could be. BT gave us all of this.”