IBM's training for Olympic marathon

Fresh from a Wimbledon smash, Big Blue plans to hurdle its own records with a 70,000 page site for the Sydney Olympics
Written by David Hellaby, Contributor on

How do you plan, create and provide the content for a Web site comprising more than 70,000 pages that is expected to receive one billion page views and billions of hits in just 14 days?

At the same time how do you protect what will be the juiciest target on the Net from hackers and distributed denial of service attacks? That's the task facing the IBM team responsible for the Sydney Olympics Web site. By the end of the games, olympics.com is expected to have broken several records including the most hits per minute and the most in any single day.

Data will be uploaded to RS/6000 SP servers from a central database that will be fed by a series of LANs linking 9000 ThinkPads and workstations. Last week IBM-run Wimbledon.org received a record 2.34 billion hits over the two week tennis championships from the end of June, from just under a billion in 1999, according to figures released Thursday.

A semi-final match between sisters Venus and Serena Williams was the second most popular event, with 885,499 hits in the busiest minute.

But a peak 963,948 people a minute took up their virtual centre court seats to watch Andre Agassi fight in vain against Pat Rafter in the fifth set of their semi-final.

The 1996 Atlanta Olympics Web site received 187 million hits (approximately 33 million page views) during the competition period, reaching a peak of 17 million hits on 1 August, 1996. It was a world record at the time. But it only lasted until the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.

A milestone was set at the Nagano site on Day 14 (Fri, 20 Feb) at 9pm (Japan Standard Time) during two simultaneous high-profile events -- the gold medal competition in women's figure skating and the semi-final ice hockey game between Russia and Finland. Avid Olympic fans in the United States and Europe helped drive the traffic on the Web site to a world record rate of 103,429 hits per minute.

This surpassed the record set only three days earlier, on Day 11 of the competition, when Japan won the K120 ski jumping Gold Medal. Within minutes of the winning jump at midday, traffic on the Web site soared to 98,226 hits per minute.

While these figures sound impressive they will pale into insignificance by comparison with Sydney where the Web site team are gearing up for a 300-fold increase on the Atlanta traffic.

IBM Olympic Internet project executive John Davidson, in a masterpiece of understatement, said "given that olympics.com will be on the only site with results and comprehensive information about every athlete, every team and every country, we expect it to be a popular destination for fans all around the world. We are estimating 1 billion page views."

That equates to several billion hits.

IBM will use four origin server complexes -- three in the United States and one in Australia -- serviced by RS/6000 SP servers to cope with the traffic and provide back up in the event of one or more failing. Data will be uploaded to them from a central database that will be fed by a series of local area networks linking 9000 ThinkPads and workstations.

The system has been designed to automatically shed non-essential content, such as graphics, during peak traffic and replace it when traffic eases.

During the fortnight of competition the 100-strong Web team will have the job of constantly updating 45,000 results pages.

Rarely has there been a more succulent site for hackers to target, and for the first time an Olympic site will have to cope with the possibility of a distributed denial of service attack similar to that which shut down Yahoo!, CNN, eBay and other major sites in February.

"We do not believe anyone should be so bold as to say that their Web site is invulnerable," said Davidson. "But there are ways to minimise the impact of hackers."

"We employ a number of technologies to monitor and block attackers and work closely with our customers and technology partners to advise and assist them. We've done extremely comprehensive testing on all aspects of the Olympic technology solution we provide," he said.

This will be the last IBM's last Olympics. Big Blue has decided it can no longer justify the cost.

"We have decided not to renew our Olympics sponsorship of which the Web is only part."

"As we evaluated the contribution of value-in-kind technology and services required to sustain our worldwide partnership with the Olympic movement over the next several years, we concluded that the investment simply could not be justified by the available marketing return," said Davidson.

IBM will not say how much its involvement in the Sydney Olympics has cost other than that it has involved "significant resources" including people, products, services and experience.

At least it will be assured of a world record...

Reuters contributed to this story.

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