The play never stops: Why one second of downtime can ruin Uefa's game

Uefa head of IT Daniel Marion on getting ready for Euro 2012 and systems that can never fail...

Uefa head of IT Daniel Marion on getting ready for Euro 2012 and systems that can never fail...

Imagine the scene: you've settled down to watch the big match, your team is seconds away from putting the ball into the net and your screen goes blank.

It's the nightmare scenario that Daniel Marion - head of ICT at the Union of European Football Associations (Uefa) - spends his professional career trying to avoid.

Uefa website

The Uefa.com website is expected to handle more than 400 million visits during Uefa's international competition seasonImage: Uefa

Marion and his team manage the technology that allows Uefa to stage one of the world's biggest football tournaments, the European Football Championship, as well as run national and club competitions for European football clubs throughout the year.

Year round, Uefa provides live internet and mobile video streams of its matches to some 70 broadcasters across Europe, as well as offering videos, match scores and reports, player listings and reams of other stats through the Uefa.com website.

These services require 24/7 availability: even a minute's downtime at the wrong moment can be catastrophic, according to Marion.

"If a website or service is down during the final of the Champions League then obviously we have a big issue in terms of image and sponsor exposure, [the impact of] which would be massive.

"We can look at numbers and ask, 'What's the loss there?' But really it's more the loss of image, where we would have to explain to sponsors what happened and also handle the complaints from the fans.

"The fact is that a lot of people are relying on our statistics and everything else we provide. If this doesn't work the collateral damage is high because people expect the service we deliver to work," he said.

Keeping match videos and results flowing freely is easier said than done. During its international competition season, Uefa expects more than 400 million visits to the Uefa.com website while gigabits of video and data will be streamed to football fans during the European Football Championship.

And it's not just the fans who Uefa's tech needs to serve. Its IT systems are essential for...

...the smooth running of each match behind the scenes - for media bookings, issuing accreditations, stadium management and security, competition oversight, and services to referees and commercial partners. All of the information that Uefa staff and its partners need to run and broadcast a match is handled through the Football Administration and Management Environment (Fame), which has some 25,000 users.

"All interaction with Uefa is done with modules on that system - it is at the heart of what we do," Marion said.

"If the solution is down when broadcasters need to pick their match for the week this is massive. We don't have the manpower to call everyone and say, 'This is yours'. There [are some problems where], if we lose technology, a human being can't solve it," he said.

Demand for Uefa's systems is not only high, it can also be unrelenting - particularly during the European Football Championship.

"During the European Championship, everything has to work on a 24-hour basis. We don't have time to adjust because we always have things going on - whether it is the management side of things or the TV transmission and serving the general public when the match is going on," said Marion.

Getting suppliers onside

Juggling these competing demands for rock-solid systems and services is complicated by the fact that Marion is not directly responsible for keeping the balls in the air.

As Uefa's IT infrastructure and services are almost entirely outsourced, one of Marion's most important jobs is making sure Uefa's providers understand that its key systems can never fail.

"We are very demanding of our providers in terms of what we ask, in terms of our service levels," he said.

"The biggest challenge is to get suppliers to think in the event way. They need to understand that we are selling emotions, which are very intangible from a business perspective.

"When we're talking about a match, if we lose five minutes we can never gain it back - it's lost forever."

All of Uefa's systems are hosted and delivered by...

...cloud services provider Interoute from a heavily virtualised datacentre, with a second datacentre that will take over if the first fails.

Uefa recently finished migrating its systems from its previous provider to Interoute - a move Marion said was a race against the clock.

"The challenges were pretty big because we had a timeframe of eight months from the end of last year [to complete the move].

"We had a tight deadline to hit the first of July because obviously running two large infrastructures in parallel has a cost. We have about 600 boxes - so that was a significant piece [of work] to reimplement and test, to transfer the data, and we also re-architected to use much more virtualisation."

Switching to Interoute's cloud platform will cut IT running costs, thanks to the ability of the virtualised platform to scale computing resources up and down to meet demand, according to Marion.

"Through the deal with Interoute, we will aim to reduce running costs by 15 per cent over three years," Marion said.

"Most of reductions will come from new pricing structure, efficiency and using more virtualised environments."

Under the terms of Uefa's contract with Interoute, the supplier must provide Uefa with a base level of performance - although how they achieve that is up to Interoute.

Preparations for Euro 2012

Because most of Uefa's IT is outsourced, the association's inhouse tech team focuses on making sure suppliers meet Uefa's technical and operational demands.

"We are far more into the business relations and contract management," said Marion, adding: "We bring the business needs and the expertise in how to run events and operations."

Uefa's inhouse tech team has been working to make sure that its IT suppliers are able to...

...scale up infrastructure and provide additional equipment and support during the next European Football Championship, the forthcoming Euro 2012.

The contest, which will be hosted in Ukraine and Poland, will see Uefa take on more than 4,000 additional volunteers and staff.

"During the tournament there will be about 5,000 people working, including the volunteers, and a lot of them will need computers and the like," said Marion, adding: "We are running this."

Football

Uefa is getting its IT ready for the next European Football Championship, the forthcoming Euro 2012Photo: Shutterstock

Aside from the increase in manpower, the stadiums where Euro 2012 matches are being played are being plumbed into high-bandwidth networks, in order to carry video and other data from the contest.

"We have to work very closely with Poland and Ukraine telecoms to make sure their network is geared to support the level of traffic we will generate. No network can handle a major sporting event without big changes in terms of their setup.

"For the European Championship we build a network that is supposed to carry 60GB of TV transmission from stadiums to the broadcasting centre and we want everything to be fully redundant.

"We have a team that's looking at the European Championship very closely to make sure we have the right level of infrastructure installed in the stadium."

Marion, who has been at Uefa for 10 years, is a follower of the beautiful game although not a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of any one side. However, he still gets to enjoy the matches that he helps Uefa to stage.

"I am a football fan but I'm Swiss so we don't really have a lot of good teams," he said.

"I pick my team depending on the way they play. I like Barcelona at the moment, I think they played fantastic football last year."

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