A version of this article was originally published on TechWeekEurope. For more sports technology coverage click here.
The Commonwealth Games is the second-largest multi-sport tournament in the world, second only to the Olympics in scope, with the twentieth edition in Glasgow comprising some 260 medal events, 4,500 athletes and 15,000 volunteers.
The closing ceremony on Sunday brought to an end not just 11 days of superb sport, but also an extensive IT operation that has been instrumental to delivering what Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) CEO Mike Hooper called “the standout games in the history of the movement.”
While Usain Bolt, Greg Rutherford and Tom Daley were taking the plaudits in the competition venues, a more modest technology team, based at the Technology Operations Centre (TOC) at games headquarters in the city centre, ensured everything ran smoothly.
Led by CIO Brian Nourse, who performed the same role for Melbourne in 2006, the operation was responsible for the timing and scoring systems, fixed and wireless networks for athletes, organisers and the media, VoIP and mobile voice services, the games website, the Games Information System (GIS), the in-venue scoreboards and back-end office infrastructure.
This was supported by a number of technical partners, including Longines, which provided timing and scoring, Virgin Media, which supplied mobile services and Dell, which was chosen as hardware partner because of its involvement in Melbourne. The company provided 2,400 PCs and tablets, 123TB of storage and 36 PowerEdge servers.
Cisco powered the network infrastructure which included 520Gbps of total installed bandwidth and was protected by a firewall capable of processing 25TB of information. For the first time at a Commonwealth Games, the same data feed as the Olympics was used, while Atos also provided the system for selecting volunteers, or ‘Clyde-siders’.
Unlike the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which dictates that local organising committees must use certain official partners, Glasgow 2014 had a free hand when selecting its suppliers.
No complex technology
“We could make the decisions depending on what we needed to deliver,” said Nourse, explaining the detailed timeline used by the organisers during the planning stage. This roadmap addressed the various challenges faced by the organising committee, such as balancing expectations with economic reality, the difficulty of managing so many concurrent projects and ensured everything would be ready for the opening ceremony on 23 July.
“There’s not lots of complex technology,” says Nourse. “We don’t take risks with unproven technology because the opening ceremony had to start when it did and we can’t afford for things not to work, particularly when they come under pressure.”
Managing so many vendors and projects could have proven to be a challenge in itself, but the technology team was divided into six sub-teams with specific responsibilities and included representatives from each partner. For example, Dell sat on the infrastructure team, Cisco with the communications team, Longines with the results team, while there were also divisions for the venues and games information systems.
The TOC also had representatives from the communications regulator Ofcom, which was responsible for ensuring additional spectrum was made available during the Games.
Inside the TOC
The centre went fully online on 22 July, with staff working morning, afternoon and overnight shifts to ensure everything worked perfectly. A wall of monitors dispalyed live video feeds from the host broadcaster, data network maps, radio maps, 24-hour news channels and the latest incidents keeps each team informed of everything that was happening across the city.
Most incidents were resolved at the venues and were only referred to the TOC if they escalated. One of the monitors showed a map of Glasgow with each venue coloured according to its status. Green meant everything was OK, amber indicated a problem, red signalled a major issue and grey was used for venues that have been decommissioned.
This included the athletes’ village, which housed the majority of competitors and 71 national Commonwealth Games Associations (CGAs). Each house and temporary office was equipped with superfast broadband and Wi-Fi, while Dell also provided tablets that could be rented and used within the village’s recreational areas.
Changes in demand
Of course, even with conservative choices of technology, an event of this scale presents its own challenges, especially the ability to test infrastructure in venues that are being used all the time, such as Ibrox and Celtic Park, or temporary structures that didn’t exist before.
All equipment was delivered to a test facility before being deployed in the games, and some simulations were used in an attempt to recreate real life conditions since exclusive access to the venues was only granted just before the Games started. Nourse estimated that the full IT infrastructure was only in place for 48 hours before some equipment was decommissioned.
Glasgow 2014 was arguably the first Commonwealth Games to be built around wireless, with demand increasing dramatically since Delhi four years ago. More than 10,000 different devices were connected to the Games network, a far cry from Melbourne where only a limited amount of Wi-Fi was available, mainly in the recreational areas of the athletes’ village.
“The most significant part of the infrastructure is the Wi-Fi network,” said deputy TOC director Kathy Chapman. “Everyone expects wireless to be free but it’s not free to deliver.”
London 2012 connection
One advantage organisers did have over their predecessors was that a major multi-sport event was held in the same country only two years previously. Nourse picked the brain of London 2012 CIO Gerry Pennell, who also delivered the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, before Melbourne 2006 and did the same before Glasgow.
“When I started here almost four years ago, I spent some time down in London with Gerry and his team, understanding what they were doing and whether that would be applicable to use, recognising there is differing scope and scale,” explained Nourse. “Learning what they what they did or what they would have done differently – we had the opportunity to learn from that.”
This extended to security, an area which Nourse said has become increasingly complex.
No major security threats
“We know London gave [security] lots of good attention and they spent a lot of time planning ‘what-if scenarios and putting in infrastructure that was there to support those types of issues,” he said. “It [Security’s] always been front of mind and I think we’ve approached it in a very pragmatic way, both in terms of a technical and a procedural point of view. We’ve had a dedicated IT security manager for a good period of time now and we didn’t have one in Melbourne.”
The team had tools detect any suspicious patterns, but there was an acknowledgement that monitoring people’s behaviour is just as important as technology when protecting IT infrastructure. Like London, the majority of threats appear to have affected the official website rather than underlying systems.
The CEO of BT’s security division told TechWeekEurope last year that there were 212 million malicious attempts on the official London 2012 website during the Olympics, but there was no real threat from digital terrorism, with only 77 separate tickets requiring human response.
Nourse said there have been no real security issues in Glasgow, partly because his team worked with its hosting providers to ensure it could withstand any malicious activity.
“We haven’t examined it yet, but there haven’t been any major attacks,” he claimed. “There hasn’t been anything that’s needed major attention. No doubt that there will have been stuff happening under the radar.”
The road to the Gold Coast
Now that the games have finished, the TOC is no longer operating 24 hours a day and attention has turned to decommissioning venues and collecting data that could be useful for oganisers of the next Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast in 2018.
Some venues were decommissioned during the Games itself, with all equipment from Ibrox, which hosted the Rugby Sevens on the 26 and 27 of July, removed by midday the following day. Only some fixed infrastructure was left behind as a legacy.
Interestingly, organisers bought very little hardware outright and rented equipment wherever possible. For example, racks from the Olympics were reused and some pieces of hardware will be recycled again if possible.
In addition to the security review that will take place, other games data must be retained as part of the CGF’s ‘knowledge transfer’ programme to help future organising committees and potential bidders. Legal documents must also be kept and the rest of the information will be archived.
“There’re a lot less paper records than there used to be,” noted Nourse, who will be returning to Australia to resume his duties as the CIO for the Gold Coast games. But what technological developments does he expect to play a part in 2018?
Cloud was deliberately avoided by Glasgow 2014 because of the desire to avoid risk, but Nourse thinks it will definitely be a fixture in these types of events in the future. Indeed, the cloud was used for some minor applications, such as volunteering rosters in Glasgow, but security and stability concerns prevented its wider use.
“The infrastructure that you need to build for a very short period of time is incredibly expensive and takes time,” he says. “[The Cloud’s] certainly going to be the model going forward and adopting that model lessens the risk and invariably reduces the cost, but there are challenges and that is why it hasn’t been completely adopted by this industry.”