Why Cisco's 2012 Olympics network won't fall down…

By Martin Courtney
13 Oct 2011 View Comments
London Olympics 2012

Data networking giant Cisco is revelling in its role as an official tier-two infrastructure supporter for the London 2012 Olympics, seizing a welcome opportunity to showcase its equipment and support capabilities for publicity purposes.

The company will provide the core network routing and switching, security and firewalls, email management, Wi-Fi access and IP telephony for the organising committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), serving 6,000 staff and 70,000 'games makers' or volunteers, at 100 venues around the UK (most of them in London), and is anxious to be seen as a safe pair of hands by both the public and senior tier-one infrastructure partners, BT and Atos Origin.

Further reading

The Olympics will see three local area networks (LANs) delivering services for the games, administration and rate card services that handle broadcasters from outside the UK.

Cisco will also handle the Live Site program, whereby big screens are put in city centres and parks in cities around the UK for locals to watch, using its knowledge of IPTV gained from a similar deployment in the Millennium Stadium installed last year.

"LOCOG has to ensure that all data is accurate and readily available for a multitude of channels, all with distinct delivery requirements, including live scoreboards, results for media, Olympic venue information systems, TV graphics for broadcasters, affiliated websites, international federations and many, many more," said LOCOG CIO Gerry Pennell in a statement.

"That data must then be aggregated from source and carried across the backhaul networking equipment managed by Cisco to a number of different and multifaceted destinations."

From Cisco's point of view, security and reliability is the big pressure point, making sure the network doesn't fall down under the weight of user traffic, and isn't taken out by hackers keen to cause maximum embarrassment to LOCOG and its suppliers.

In fact, security is such a sensitive issue that even though Computing met, interviewed and took the business card of the man who first took on responsibility for building the Cisco Olympics network in 2009, LOCOG does not want us to name him or reveal his job title, even though the information is freely available on his LinkedIn profile.

"Our biggest technology focus is security – we have firewalls that process several gigabytes of information at any one time, to those running in distributed mode at individual venues, as well as intrusion prevention system (IPS) devices," said the man we will call Mr X, though he stresses that the event website runs on a separate infrastructure and any downtime would only affect network access at individual venues.

"Reliability is equally key. Rather than using its latest technology – and at the behest of its infrastructure partners – Cisco is using tried and tested Cisco 6500 switches that have been on the market for 10 years and which also formed the basis of similar Cisco projects at the Sydney Olympics and the 2010 Fifa World Cup. It also involves 3,750 edge switches that connect laptops and IP phones at the venues, with some venues requiring very small port density and others requiring a huge amount."

"We have estimated that the total traffic will be no more than 10GB of throughput at any one time, but we have catered for 80GB, so even in the worst-case scenario, where half the switches go down, we would still have 40GB available," said X.

The Wi-Fi access that Cisco will supply to LOCOG staff and Olympics teams will share wireless infrastructure with public in-stadium Wi-Fi access for spectators, though some form of tunnelling will separate the two streams, said X. The Olympic Stadium itself will use high-density Wi-Fi architecture, using thousands of 'dumb' access points that will see 900 APs serving every 300 seats within the Olympic Stadium itself, for example, with enough bandwidth to connect 10 per cent of them concurrently.

"Managed access points are a huge overhead when you're managing hundreds or thousands of nodes, so these use remote interfaces in a centralised control architecture managed by wireless control software," said X.

As far as preparation is concerned, Cisco is 'right where it wants to be', with 90 per cent of the design elements complete and 60 per cent of all the equipment that will be used on order, if not yet in place.

"The broadband network is complete – points of presence (PoPs) at the Olympic Park and BT telephone exchanges form the core of that," said X. "It is an easy model because 75 per cent of the sites are in the Olympic Park, 90 per cent are within the M25, and apart from that it's just a few football stadiums and places like the Lee Valley Whitewater Centre, so we did not need a multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) network."

The company has already put relevant software and operating systems through their paces at BT's Adastral Park testing centre, creating network models, performing acceptance and management testing, then 'war gaming' to try to bring the network down, then making sure it is redundant. Onsite network testing will begin as and when the Olympic venues become available.

"The Olympics are always done on a just-in-time basis, and there will always be last-minute changes coming through, but we can accommodate those," said X.

All the switches, routers, access points and other devices in use will have spares available for use throughout the course of the games, with 24x7 replacement contracts in place. Cisco will supply eight duty managers and 24 networking experts working at the technology operations centre.

X is anxious to point out what Cisco's network infrastructure does not carry, lest there is any confusion or danger of stepping on other LOCOG partners' toes.

"It does not carry timing and scoring information. Omega does that using fairly archaic interfaces – copper RS22 and RS249, for example – with some Bluetooth and Wi-Fi; however, it's not really IP connected. The data goes from Omega to Atos Origin, then it's shipped off onto Cisco networks," said X. "We are the layer zero stuff, but sorting out the ducts and cabling all of that is for BT to handle – it is ramping up to 600 staff for the event, compared with 32 for Cisco."

TV coverage is to be provided by broadcast network providers best able to handle high-definition images, with the cameras using dark fibre around the Olympic Park to carry the traffic back to the broadcaster. At that point it is formatted into MP4, then put onto Cisco's network for distribution to athletes and organisers. Mobile services – 3G – are supported by Samsung, with Cisco providing the Wi-Fi access in and around the venues.

"We work with them [other partners] to run a different network for traffic that is not too demanding but still mission-critical, as well as Samsung for data offload when people drop out of 3G and onto a Wi-Fi signal," said X.

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