London 2012: Why the Olympics CIO is preparing for the worst

Interview: Gerry Pennell on online attacks, apps, contactless payments and the games' tech legacy...
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

Interview: Gerry Pennell on online attacks, apps, contactless payments and the games' tech legacy...

When asked what nightmare scenarios keep him awake at night, Gerry Pennell, the man in charge of technology for the London 2012 Olympic Games, jokes: "At this stage we're all significantly tired that staying awake is not a problem".

Gerry Pennell CIO for Locog

Gerry Pennell, CIO for the London Olympics, says they will test hundreds of scenarios before the gamesPhoto: London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games

With less than a year to go before the Olympics opening ceremony, Pennell, CIO for the organisers of the London Olympics, has a team of 600 people working "flat out" on testing and preparing the technology for the games.

"The pace of delivery has picked up big time. We have been running the test events for the last three to four months - so it's becoming very real," he told silicon.com at an event in London yesterday.

The games hit a milestone this week with the official unveiling of the Technology Operations Centre (TOC) - the London-based centre that will manage and monitor the Olympics systems that run the venues, record results and relay them to the rest of the world. The centre's 450 staff will work with the thousands of technical staff situated in the Olympic's 94 venues to make sure the technology works without a hitch.

Teams from London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Locog) and its technology suppliers are currently in the final stages of testing software and hardware before rolling it out to Olympic and Paralympic venues. Alongside this testing, tech teams are taking part in dummy runs of Olympic events and making sure the tech supporting each event performs as expected.

The real test of the Olympics technology will take place during three days of technical rehearsals in the months before the games begin. During these rehearsals, hundreds of different nightmare scenarios will be thrown at technical staff to see how they - and the infrastructure - cope.

"We will simulate cyber security problems and physical attacks, people will unplug cables and switch boxes off," Pennell said.

"We will throw hundreds of scenarios at the TOC over a three-day period - far worse I imagine than anything that will happen during the games. It is important to practice that crisis management, so if anything happens we will be ready."

Pennell stressed that the architecture of the Olympics systems had been built with security in mind.

"We keep mission-critical games systems isolated from other components of the network, particularly anything web-facing. It would be very difficult for any external attack to succeed."

He added that the games website's vulnerability to...

...being taken offline by a denial of service attack will be minimised, because it is hosted and served from a number of different sites.

Aside from security, questions have also been raised over whether London's mobile phone networks will be able to cope with the strain put on them by the one million visitors expected during the Olympics.

Pennell said Locog has been working with BT and mobile phone carriers to put an infrastructure in place capable of supporting the huge numbers of people expected to be using mobiles during the games, but said he couldn't guarantee uninterrupted mobile phone coverage.

"We have been working closely with our communication service provider BT and the rest of the network operators to make sure there is enough infrastructure to provide a good level of service through the games in the Olympic Park," he said.

"There are always moments during sporting events when the volume of demand is so huge that everybody will not be able to connect at the same time, but for the vast majority of the time the experience will be pretty good."

Wi-fi will also be available throughout the Olympic Park, although Pennell couldn't confirm that this would be free as he said "the proposition for the park is still being discussed".

This year's games will also be the first app-enabled Olympics - with Locog planning two official mobile apps on Android, BlackBerry, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 devices. Pennell said the first app will deliver results from the games in real time and the second will provide "spectator information that will help people enjoy the experience of visiting the games".

Pay with your phone

Visitors to the Olympic Park will be able to use Visa cards to make contactless payments at concession stalls and stores.

Pennell said Locog is also in discussion with Samsung about allowing visitors to make payments inside the Olympic Park using an NFC-enabled smartphone.

"We are looking at people being able to use a combination of normal cards and contactless cards, and we are discussing NFC opportunities with mobile phones - which is a possibility," Pennell said.

Visa and Samsung plan to release an NFC-enabled handset ahead of next year's games that they say will be able to...

...be used to make payments at stores inside the Olympic Park.

Broadband legacy

The Olympic venues will be linked by a fibre network capable of transmitting up to 60Gb of information - the equivalent of 60,000 novels - every second and details are starting to emerge about what those fat pipes will be used for after the games have finished.

London 2012 technology

The London Olympics Technology Operations Centre will serve as mission control during the gamesPhoto: London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games

A fibre network providing 100Mbps broadband to the Olympic Village will remain in place to serve the thousands of new homes that are expected to be created on the site. Similarly, a 40Mbps fibre connection feeding the Olympic sailing venue on the Isle of Portland, near Weymouth in Dorset, will also remain in place.

"Venue by venue there will also be opportunities to leave network infrastructure behind after the games," Pennell said.

The tech exodus

The legacy of the games won't just be technical infrastructure - in the wake of the Olympics, hundreds of techies fresh from working on the games will be looking for a job.

When the Olympics finish and Locog is disbanded there will be some 320 tech staff on the job market, but Pennell said bodies representing East London Tech City and UK Trade & Investment are working with Locog to find placements for ex-Olympic tech staff.

"My own team won't be employed in a year's time. We have a programme 'Beyond 2012' that is all about helping staff to find good opportunities in other organisations," he said.

Pennell said the experience of working on the 2012 games provided tech staff with plenty of opportunities for "upskilling" that would make them attractive to future employers.

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