Sochi 2014: Coping with the Winter Olympics data blizzard
- 11 February 2014
- From the section Business
As the bobsleigh hurtles down the sinuous Sanki Sliding Center reaching speeds of more than 80mph (130km/h), it will beam real-time data to TV viewers around the world.
Omega, the official timekeeper for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia, has added a unit capable of transmitting speed, acceleration, G-force and vertical track positioning data during their runs.
While this type of technology will be familiar to Formula One motorsport enthusiasts, it is the first time it has been applied to bobsleigh and is indicative of how this Winter Olympics is the most technologically complex, data-intensive Games ever.
Peter Hurzeler, member of Omega's timing board, told the BBC: "We began developing this technology three years ago and one of the more difficult tasks was to make the equipment compact - now the system weighs just 300g."
The unit was tested more than a thousand times in competitions before being cleared for use at the Games, he said.
Technology underpins almost every aspect of the Games: cross-country skiers are tracked by GPS technology, while speed skaters' times are measured to the nearest thousandth of a second using light beams on the surface of the ice at the finish line.
Omega says it will measure more than 650,000 distances, times and scores during the Games, using 230 tonnes of timekeeping, scoring and data-handling equipment.
The rise in the use of such data-transmitting sensors and mobile devices has led to a surge in data collection and usage, with a big knock-on effect for networking and security, IT providers say.
At the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, the ratio of wired to wireless devices was four-to-one, according to Dean Frohwerk, head of networking architecture for Avaya, an official IT Olympic Partner providing services to the 40,000 officials, athletes, journalists and support staff at the Games.
"At Sochi this has reversed," he says. "We made provision for up to 120,000 bandwidth-hungry devices on site per day, equivalent to three gadgets per person."
Now that people can stream video on mobile and tablet devices, networks are having to cope with a tenfold increase in data volumes compared to four years ago, estimates Mr Frohwerk.
This entails building a robust backbone infrastructure - routers, switches and the like - which can power seven virtual networks channelling data securely to the right audiences. It must also be scalable, so that it can cope with sudden unexpected spikes in data traffic, he says.
The firm with the unenviable task of integrating and co-ordinating all this IT and broadcasting technology across 11 venues at the Black Sea resort, is Atos, the European company that also provides services to the BBC.
It began planning for Sochi nearly five years ago.
Competition results recording is "almost fully automated", says Patrick Adiba, Atos' head of Olympic Games and major events.
This is useful when 17 competitions can be running at the same time.
High-speed networks enable TV commentators and news agencies to receive results and contextual background information on the competitors in a split second, "even before they hear the roar of the crowd", he says.
All this extra data has to be accessible across all operating platforms and securely directed to the right places, via fibre optic cable, wireless networks, and satellite.
Atos is employing 400 computer servers just to store the data and serve applications.
Alan Murphy, European marketing director for networking specialist, Brocade, told the BBC: "This is a massive networking challenge - the scale of the whole event makes it hugely complex.
"But at least knowing how many people are going to be there and for how long makes it easier for IT providers to model the likely data needs."
Security and privacy
Given the threats of a terrorist attack and hacking, data security and reliability is obviously "fundamental", says Mr Adiba.
"All the systems are duplicated up to four times, in case something fails. Even the technology operating centre is duplicated and can be up and running in two hours if the first one falls over."
Planning for the Games involved about 100,000 hours of testing, he says, running through 700 problem scenarios.
During the 2012 London Olympics there were 250 million "security events" detected over the network during the 17 days of the Games, but only 400 were potentially serious, he says.
A security event can be something as innocuous as a journalist mis-typing a password.
"We don't care too much about the cause of the security event, we just care about protecting the Games. So if someone does something suspicious or unauthorised, we immediately stop the connection," he says.
"If you can secure the Games you can secure pretty much anything else on earth."
But privacy is another issue.
Russian telecoms provider MegaFon is responsible for providing the local network for spectators, and the US State Department has warned visitors that: "Russian Federal law permits the monitoring, retention and analysis of all data that traverses Russian communication networks, including internet browsing, email messages, telephone calls, and fax transmissions."
The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics may be the most data-intensive and networked Games ever, but they are unlikely to be the most private.