I am writing this blog as I return from a whirlwind visit to the Vancouver Olympics – a truly digital Olympics relying on a converged network from Avaya and Bell Canada to deliver all of the data and media required for the games. The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games(VANOC) CIO, Ward Chapin, has been oft quoted saying that hosting the Winter Olympics is similar in scale to hosting 3 Super Bowls a day for 17 days, so when I spoke to him I asked how he does that. Relying on a team of suppliers and partners that includes Atos Origin, Avaya, Bell Canada, Panasonic, Samsung, and others, Ward is focused on the need to deliver the games for both the athletes and the worldwide audience. Ward said that many observers could see the giant helicopters and army of people delivering snow to venues like Cypress Mountain, but they did not see the giant network and army of people delivering the digital lifeblood of the games. Ward was pleased with his suppliers who are delivering dual redundant OC-192 (10GB) capacity to every Olympic venue and delivering it all to media outlets operating around the clock from the media and broadcast centers adjacent to the Olympic torch in Canada Place and the Vancouver Convention Centre on Vancouver’s waterfront.
Avaya's Chief Network Architect assigned to VANOC, Dean Frohwerk, used the capabilities of the integrated networking gear from Avaya to set class and quality of service constraints prioritizing timing, scoring and judging data streams highest to ensure that the games would always be able to go on. Dean got very serious when I asked if the network could stop an event saying he had designed every physical and digital redundancy and backup possible into the network to prevent an IT failure from impacting an event observing wryly, “It is impossible to ask a biathlete who just completed a 20 kilometer cross country ski to start over because of a loss of scoring or timing data.” He was quite proud to report that there had been no major problems with any of the networking through the games. He remained on duty and available to resolve any issues, logging long hours at the Technical Operations Center, but thus far his biggest excitement had been a plug that had been kicked out of a wall inadvertently and a fire alarm that sounded when a late night dinner was overcooked in a microwave.
While the games go on, the entire world watches –video is taking center stage in Olympics coverage. The VANOC media centers look like enormous press facilities on the surface, broadcast production, story writing, and photo review all take place in an environment that has up to the second results available electronically or printed, and has live video coverage of all the current events from the Olympic Broadcasting Services. But below the surface lurks an enormous co-location facility with massive connections between VANOC’s network and a wide array of networking from media organizations delivering the games to billions and billions of viewers in real time and as stored media. Most countries have a primary media outlet covering the Olympics and I talked to several people about the USA’s media outlet – NBC.
In 2008, NBC had invested in digitalization of content and building the infrastructure to rapidly move video from Beijing to New York for preparation for delivery to viewers around the world. In 2010, NBC’s Perkins Miller, SVP in charge of Olympic Digital Media, says that NBC is harnessing not just digital media, but also digital work flows and social networks to better deliver the Olympic experience to viewers on TVs, PCs, and smartphone devices. Using Cisco video technologies and platforms NBC will be able to process and deliver near real time edited clips of events to multiple viewing platforms, leveraging network services from AT&T.
NBC’s primary task is the capture, editing, and delivery of the video from the major events to mass market outlets like NBCOlympics.com and NBC’s broadcast network. To do this NBC taps into the 10Gbps streams from the events and leverages a video library of 1,000s of hours of video shot before and during the games. Some NBC employees and even athletes were to be using portable video cameras to create and share video content. I expected to find these quasi-user generated content clips on NBCOlympics.com under the “Out and About” video tab, but there is nothing there to date. One person I spoke with said there were active discussion with the IOC about the depiction of “Olympic icons” as well as product endorsement rights related to posting these videos, but they were being shot and edited. NBC has focused on delivering a high quality experience to their viewers , leveraging their broadcast network and website as well as other paths like the NBCOlympics app available in the Apple iTunes App Store. NBC is relying on iStreamPlanet to provide digital media services and software applications to encode the 23 digital video feeds coming from Vancouver to NBC web infrastructure in Las Vegas. Akamai – a global Content Delivery Network vendor – is ensuring reliable delivery of NBC video via the Internet. NBC and Akamai use Microsoft's Silverlight streaming-media technology to deliver Olympics coverage over Akamai’s HD network using Microsoft's IIS Smooth Streaming platform.
The lesson for the tech industry? Technology plays a role in all aspects of the business of the Olympic Games and the results are measured in completed events, efficient logistics, satisfied viewers, and revenue for all the partners and providers supporting the Olympics – – not reduced packet loss and higher bandwidth availability. The lessons learned in Vancouver – and Beijing, London, etc. etc. – will help make networks more flexible and reliable in order to support business processes and communication needs of all businesses. Let the games go on – and the digital processes expand!