Euro 2016: Why mobile and cloud will be the real star players when it comes to tech

UEFA Head of ICT Daniel Marion tells ZDNet how they've prepared for the biggest European Football Championship ever by using the latest tech
Written by Danny Palmer, Senior Writer

Euro 2016 is the biggest tournament in the championship's history - and it's also the most technologically advanced.

Image: Populous

The UEFA European Football Championship 2016 is set to be the biggest in the tournament's history -- and that's not just an overblown marketing cliché: this time 24 national teams are set to compete in Euro 2016, compared to the 16 of previous tournaments.

For European football governing body UEFA, and tournament host country France, the growth of the championship means an additional infrastructure challenge, with 11 venues set to host matches during the competition, which kicks off on June 10 and runs through until the final at the 80,000-capacity Stade de France in Paris on July 10.

Hundreds of millions of people will be keeping up with Euro 2016 through TV, radio, and other channels such as the official tournament website and mobile apps -- so any interruptions or issues with the IT behind these services will therefore be highly visible and likely a PR disaster.

The challenge of ensuring Euro 2016's information technology infrastructure is 100 percent reliable falls to Daniel Marion, head of ICT at UEFA. Marion is responsible for the delivery of all technology for UEFA, including at its Swiss headquarters, as well as for the Champions League and the Europa League annual tournaments -- but it's the month long Euro 2016 which is set to be the biggest challenge.

"When it comes to IT, obviously we want it to be 100 percent up and we'll do everything to ensure that. It's very much a 24-7 tournament, because when there's no games, we're preparing overnight for the games of the next day," he told ZDNet.

The very nature of the operation means UEFA needs "to have eyes on everything, either directly through us or through our vendor partners", which is why an 'IT command centre' has been specially constructed to manage the tournament's technology. Within it, UEFA IT staff and software engineers from the organisation's suppliers are all working together to ensure the operation goes as smoothly as possible.

"If we notice that something isn't working, we have engineers sitting next to each other, which makes things much faster over having to call someone and waiting for them mobilise people, because that takes time and we want to limit that, which is why we put people in the same room," Marion says.

While the command centre is a new venture, much of the IT behind Euro 2016 is similar to that used for UEFA's regular, year-on-year operations -- although at a much larger scale. "We have the same solutions we use for the Champion's League, the Europa League, and other competitions, so we've just enhanced them and make them Euro-compatible," says Marion.

However, the speed at which technology evolves means there's much that's changed since Euro 2012 was joint-hosted by Poland and the Ukraine. One of those things is the rise of smartphones, tablets, apps and demand for access to content any time, anywhere - but that isn't just for the benefit for fans.

"One thing that's very different for Euro 2016 compared to previous tournaments is that we have a lot more mobile apps than we did in the past, not only to engage with fans on the official website and the official app, but we have a lot of business applications too," Marion adds, citing how mobile apps are aiding day-to-day organisation around the tournament for everyone from corporate partners to stadium staff.

"For example, when you come to hospitality at Euro 2016, you have a dedicated app with information on where it is, when to come, where your table [is] reserved, where to meet people, and information about the games," he says.

But not only that, the proliferation of smartphones means that tournament volunteers can access all the information they need via their own device. "With volunteers we can take advantage of everybody having a smartphone today. So for shifts, for presence control, to push information to volunteers, we created an app. For a lot of the operations around the stadium we also have an app for reporting and checklist management. That's a big change from past Euros which gives us a lot more live information," Marion says.

As anyone who's been to a sporting fixture at a large capacity stadium will tell you, acquiring a mobile internet connection is often an impossible task. However, UEFA has accounted for this with its mobile apps.

"The apps can work offline because we source most of them through the cloud when they have connectivity. Because in stadiums -- big concrete blocks -- there are some areas where you'll need functionality offline, but then it synchronises as soon as there's connectivity back," says Marion.

Much of that, he explains, is built within a scalable private cloud -- to take into account the additional server demand, particularly when matches are being played -- which UEFA works along side long-time partner Interoute to run.

"The core is in the cloud and then we take advantage of the distributed content delivery network and storage then grow computing power depending on the needs, allocating resources to the services that need them most," he says, describing how the ability to have services "under the same roof" and under UEFA control is key.

"We wanted to build something with flexibility, but that we have under control because at moments in time during Euro 2016 -- and the normal season -- the services we deliver are sometimes very, very critical and in very, very high demand so we need to be agile," Marion says.

Naturally, any high-profile event or organisation is going to find itself a target for hackers -- be they looking to cause disruption for kicks, or compromise systems for more nefarious means -- and Euro 2016 is likely to be no different. Marion says UEFA fended off cyberattacks during Euro 2012 and expects that those responsible for cybersecurity during Euro 2016 will be doing even more defending.

"During Euro 2012 we had a lot of attempts from hackers, but luckily nothing worked. For 2016, it's likely there will be even more, so we have more countermeasures in place with information coming to us to analyse what's happening on social media, the web, and the dark web," says Marion.

"We're working with different institutions and the authorities to feed us as much information into our security operations as possible," he continues. "We've built an as resilient and as secure system as we possibly can; 100 percent security doesn't exist, but we're in a pretty good place I'd say."

So from a technology perspective what will define a successful Euro 2016 tournament for Marion and UEFA?

"I think what makes it successful is if we have no incidents, people have the ability to come to the venue, enjoy the games and we don't have major issues."


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