The Business of Building a Network for the Winter Olympics

This year social media will be bigger, faster and more important than at any previous winter sporting event, as athletes, officials, reporters and thousands of others share their excitement with the billions online. As the official network equipment suppliers of the Winter Olympics, Avaya has spent the past two years (and will spend the next few fast-paced weeks) doing our best to make sure that every single member of the Olympic family stays connected throughout the games.

Over the past decade or so people have become increasingly accustomed to being in constant contact with each other no matter when or where we are in the world. A clear example of this rapid change to a hyper-connected society can be seen within our own business history.

The Avaya team was also the network provider for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics but this time around, only four years later, the demands for bandwidth and connectivity completely dwarf anything that we delivered out there. Four years ago the tablet (iPad) had not yet come to market so it’s presence at Sochi will have a significant impact on video consumption over the network. Back in the 2010, wired traffic outnumbered wireless by a factor of 4-to-1; in Sochi this ratio will be turned on its head. Even more startling, we only had to provision a single bandwidth-hungry device per user four years ago – today, we have provisioned for three per person.

Safe to say, it was clear to us from the beginning of our Sochi journey that communications would be vital to the event’s success, but although this implementation is an example on a grand scale, the philosophy and challenges surrounding the Games will be familiar to many smaller business deployments.

So, how did we go about building the network?

Well, all enterprises need to adapt to local requirements. At Sochi we were asked to build a network that was flexible enough to adjust to new services on the fly but also simple to deploy and operate with fewer IT resources after the Games. This is a core challenge facing many small businesses today with a growing trend towards increased flexibility coupled with tighter IT budgets.

We have also had to manage a number of logistical challenges. Employees today expect to be able to connect no matter whether they are at the office, in their home, on holiday or sipping coffee in the local Starbucks so businesses are quickly realising that their networks must be able to deliver seamless access across multiple locations. The Winter Olympic Games will take place in two clusters and across 11 venues where there has traditionally been little infrastructure in place. This meant the network not only had to be built from scratch but it will also have to provide seamless connectivity and consistent quality of service across all venues.

Once we knew the physical requirements for the network, we then had to take into consideration the most significant difference between Sochi and previous Winter Games – as I mentioned earlier, we are expecting the lion’s share of the network access (from approximately 40,000 members of the Olympic family using 120,000 devices) to be wireless rather than wired, so creating a secure (Bring Your Own Device) BYOD environment was a primary focus.

A BYOD network is capable of identifying and granting access to a range of user groups while concurrently ensuring stable, secure bandwidth. Avaya is addressing this by using a tool that assigns network access rights and permissions based on a user’s credentials and role (media, athlete, IOC official), and where they connect from (Olympic village, competition venues, etc). Small businesses are finding it increasingly important to adopt similar tools that will allow their own networks to determine the user’s identity, status in the organisation, and the type of device they are connecting with – this information can then ensure that staff are granted the correct type and level of access.

Businesses around the world are also coming face to face with rapidly increasing amounts of multi-media content that ebbs and flows throughout the day. If they haven’t addressed this advancing tide already, it won’t be long before thousands of businesses in the UK will need to assess their networks to ensure they realistically have the capacity to manage this new demand. Over at Sochi, this meant that the infrastructure we put in place had to be more secure and robust than anything we had built before, capable of carrying vast loads of data and coping with huge spikes in traffic during the most popular events.

While a number of challenges have been tackled in order to make the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games a success before it even starts, many of those discussed above will be familiar to IT managers everywhere. From the need to outsource specific services and the rise of BYOD, to big data demands, and operating across multiple sites; while the scale may be larger, we all need to embrace and enable the new era of communications we live in today.

Simon Culmer is the Managing Director of Avaya for the UK. Avaya is the official provider of network equipment and services to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.