When the Olympics start next month the focus will be on the stars of track and field and the hunt for a new national hero to rise out of obscurity. However, regardless of how Team GB performs in the medal table, the unsung hero of the Games could well be the IT infrastructure that will be underpinning the world’s biggest sporting event.
For the spectator, both those fortunate enough to have got their hands on tickets to watch the events lives as well as the arm chair pundit, the success of London 2012 will rely heavily on the IT systems remaining full functional at all times. There will be a number of obstacles that will need to be overcome in order to ensure that this happens though.
Thinking on an Olympic scale
The first and most predictable of these is the surges in both ‘real world’ and Internet traffic. With the whole world watching and with a massive number of people trying to access the various stadiums across the nation’s capital, the IT infrastructure will have to deal with a massive test of its scalability. The organisers have already claimed that streaming services for live events will be made available through sites like Facebook and YouTube. Massive amounts of compute power will be required to allow the hundreds of millions of people tuning in to see Usain Bolt try and stretch the feats of human physicality one step further to watch without websites crashing.
Michele Hyron, chief integrator for London 2012 at Atos, which leads the consortium of IT suppliers running the Olympic tech infrastructure, told TechRepublic how the organisers are favouring reliability over showcasing cutting edge technology. She said: “We are using some virtualisation but we are not in the cloud. We are always working with proven technologies: at the beginning of the project we take the technology steps that are needed because you cannot be frozen forever, so we have to evolve, but we are carefully choosing the pieces.”
Moreover, on the ground, technology is going to have to work overtime to ensure that the Games do not become a logistical nightmare. It will take clever analysis to predict where the most congested areas will be as people travel to and from the various arenas. Benjamin Woo, a big data expert at IDC, has offered his view on how big data is going to play a major – albeit ‘unseen’ – role when the Olympics come to London. He said: “What will happen is that there will be companies doing big data analysis on things like traffic patterns, whether or not new transport or additional transportation needs to be deployed and where, and where should the police be positioned – those are the kinds of questions that big data is going to answer.”
If the consumer experience is not going to be ruined then both a robust IT infrastructure and intelligent use of real-time data analysis is going to have to be deployed to make sure that whether in Stratford or your living room, you can enjoy the nail-biting tension without a hitch.
There are other and perhaps more pressing concerns though. Through all challenges that London 2012’s IT infrastructure will face the most significant will be cyber threats. Indeed, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has already sounded the siren by saying that the Olympic Games “will not be immune” to cyber attacks. This goes without saying.
As the planet’s focus centres on London a fantastic platform is created for criminal groups to make substantial gains. This threat will take many forms and will have a range of motivations. Four years ago, when Beijing played host to the Olympics, Denis Edgar-Nevill, chair of cybercrime forensics at the BCS, states that there were around 12 million cyber threats every day.
From hacktivists or terrorists trying to convey a moral, ethical or political message to cyber criminals acting or financial desires or simply anarchists hoping to watch the whole system crumble, it seems inevitable that the IT environment is going to face many tests.
To the general public it is theft of banking details or ticketing scams that will be at the forefront of their concerns. Again Edgar-Nevill points to a £5m ticketing scam during the last Olympics, for which the culprits were eventually jailed earlier this year, as evidence of just how real this threat is.
In Britain, just shy of two million people applied when the first batch of tickets was released. In the application process, hopefuls entrusted the organisers with personal details as well as their bank account details so they could be charged in the case of their application being successful. Recent high profile breaches involving LinkedIn and Last.FM have illustrated the increasing frequency of such information being compromised. If criminal groups were able to access the databases with all of this data then the ramifications could be severe for organiser and punter alike.
The solution is going highly sophisticated suite of defences to the IT environment which hosts all this data. From a strong perimeter defence which rigorous access controls to intelligent systems for detecting breaches in which data is compromised and encryptions to reinforce the security of the information, the organisers will have had to have built a system prepared to cope with very advanced threats. Again real-time analysis from all the data sat within the IT infrastructure will be integral to spot or pre-empt any such attack.
This is not to mention phishing scams in which criminals will send out emails, disguising themselves as official organisers, trying to get people to part with their details in return for the tickets that eluded so many. The answer here is for due diligence from applicants asked to part with any personal details and to help you the official London2012 website includes a list of known scams.
Beyond financial fears, there are the hacktivists or terrorists groups who are motivated out of more moral causes. This week Jonathan Evans the director general of the UK Security Service, MI5, also stressed how the Olympics were going to be a hot spot for terrorist activity in a speech in which he emphasised the threat of cyber crime in the UK. From a terrorism perspective, Benjamin Woo again points to big data as a potential solution to the problem. “In terms of the anti-terrorism, that’s another area in which big data is doing a lot of the background work in terms of checking video footage to see if there are illegal activities going on,” he says.
With millions of people likely to checking the official London 2012 websites for the latest news, views and highlights, it seems unimaginable that there will not be various groups trying pry their way inside the system to promote their message or to grind their axe of choice.
When the Danny Boyle-directed opening ceremony begins so too will the real test. The Games’ organisers have already stated that they have taken due diligence in testing all aspects of the IT infrastructure to protect against cyber threats but such is the variety of people trying to accomplish such a variety of things that it is impossible to know what damage could be done or where it will come from. Whether it is downtime of the websites, the loss of identity of banking details or the malfunctioning of integral technology for the running of the sporting events themselves, there is an incredible amount at risk.
A sophisticated and robust suite of tools and technologies, many of them involving state of the art data analysis, is essential. Manpower and good old fashioned police work will, of course, be essential in delivering a safe Olympic Games but IT is going to be the decisive factor in determining whether or not the headlines at London 2012 are going to be made in the array of state-of-the-art arenas or by the long list of cyber threats.