McLaren shifts IT security up a gear

Formula One teams take information security as seriously as a place at the top the podium - as executives from McLaren explained recently, protecting data is vital to keeping ahead of your rivals

McLaren Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen makes a living by trusting his life to technology. During a race last season, the Finn was warned by his support team there had been a serious accident up ahead. One of the cars in front had exploded in a crash, blocking part of the road with burning debris. To add to the fun, an oil leak had caused a thick, smoky fire that was impossible to see through.

After warning their driver of the wreck ahead, Raikkonen's support team waited for the in-car telemetry to report their man was preparing to brake in the zero-visibility conditions. But nothing happened. Instead, the driver known as the Ice Man calmly enquired over his helmet intercom which side of the road the crash was on. After being told the left, Raikkonen banked hard to the right and thrashed his McLaren clear of danger. Later analysis revealed his speed and heart rate didn't change one iota throughout.

Accurate information is obviously crucial to drivers on Grand Prix day but it's also the competitive edge which the racing whole team relies on. Maintaining the integrity and secrecy of its data is crucially important to a top Formula One team like McLaren Mercedes.

The team's headquarters in Surrey, the McLaren Technology Centre (MTC), looks a James Bond villain's secret lair – and has a similar approach to security. Designed by Sir Norman Foster, the architect behind London's gherkin-shaped Swiss Re building, the MTC's glass facade oozes sophistication and style.

But while its HQ may be transparent, McLaren's approach to security is anything but. For any racing team, having the best technology can mean the difference between a shower of champagne and a dejected cuppa in the team caravan. The information riding on that technology has to be a closely guarded secret but available at all times to team members.

Constant vigilance is necessary to protect data from industrial espionage – including spies for rival teams who use long-lens cameras to photograph time sheets and car parts. Even rubbish is a security risk.

"Waste management is very important," said Jonathan Neale, CEO of McLaren. "If you leave oily rags in the pit, it doesn't take much to analyse the type of fuel you are using. Data security is important for us because lots of people in the world like to get hold of it. If you look at our business, it's not hard to see how people take data around. We've got engineers who take laptops around the world with them. And only two years ago, Renault reported being hacked into and having their data stolen."

Formula One espionage is an old concept – Neale even admits to having his own team of sneaky photographers - but as technology has evolved, the means of stealing data have too. This year, McLaren has seen the number of malware attacks against its company nearly double. In 2003, it received an average of 80 email viruses a day, but that number has increased to 150 a day in 2004.

Along with the likes of Sun Microsystems, Siemens and British Aerospace, software-management company Computer Associates (CA) is one of McLaren's technology partners trying to mitigate such attacks. Using CA's Security Command Centre, McLaren has pulled Checkpoint, McAfee and CA products together to create an IT security dashboard.

"A good analogy for the IT security is with the physical security and the multiplicity of problems they face, such as the timing sheets being photographed," says Colin Bannister, consulting manager for CA. "And it's the same from an IT security point of view. How do they protect themselves? That’s where we work with the Security Command Centre. There are lots of point-end systems they have. We're bringing the alerts and event logs from all of those into one place to allow McLaren to make decisions much faster than they would by looking at the products one by one."

"There is this great theory that adding more security makes you secure," continues Bannister. "But it doesn't. With this it's like a signal to noise ratio, where we're reducing the noise to improve the clarity of the signal. You can add policy rules and customise it to give you a centralised view of what's going on."

Until last year, McLaren was even running antivirus software in its cars to prevent systems being infected over Wi-Fi. Until the rules were changed 12 months ago, the team was able to remotely change the settings of the car while the driver was still on the track. This meant all data transmissions had to be tightly encrypted. Unfortunately for the team, the Formula One regulators changed the rules, banning remote configuration. These days, the team is permitted to receive telemetry data feeds from the car's 120 sensors, but the driver has to make any changes to the settings himself.

During the race, everything in the pits and the Surrey HQ is constantly analysed, so having real-time data is essential for fast communication. McLaren is using CA's Brightstor suite for high-speed resilience backup, so if any servers or connections fail, the team can still see its data.

"We work in a data rich environment," says Neale. "Systems reliability, real-time reporting, data growth, storage and security are all essential. The worst place to run a race is from the pit wall. It's very difficult because you can hardly hear the driver. So we have a decision-making process here.

"On the car we have hundreds of sensors that we derive our data from," he adds. "We are streaming statistics off the car at four megabits per second. Our competitors are also very interested in that data so we have to encrypt it. All primary sensor data is processed back here in Woking. We run the scenarios and theories on games, where we are the characters of the drivers. We try to project to see what might happen through the race. That information then goes back to the decision makers."

Ensuring high availability of the telemetric data is one of the hardest jobs for McLaren's head of group IT Andy Knight. He claims that the failover system was essential to the team's progress.

"We have to ensure that our systems are available 100 percent of time," says Knight." Obviously we are all aiming for that, but systems reliability is a big deal. It's crucial to have high availability at race or test events where servers fail – and they do fail a lot – because they go to 18 races and are loaded on planes every two weeks. But we can trip over to the secondary servers. We can't afford to lose any visibility of data or have any loss of data. When we look at a tenth or a hundredth of a second to improve, every second counts."

The technology partners and solutions are all geared towards one thing for McLaren – winning the race. With only fractions of a second between the first and last cars over the line, the slightest advantage could mean a win.

"Throughout the extended team, the mission is the same – we are here to win," says Knight. "The world knows how you are doing at any one time. The business pressures are about winning too, and that means our business has to be responsive. We have an immediacy of response. We are constantly looking for a fraction of a second improvement. The difference between being first and last on the grid is about 0.6 of a second. It requires high innovation and slick execution. It's not okay to be turning up late for a Grand Prix. Everything has to be ready to go on the day of the race."

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