Web Informant #280, 27 February 2002:
Olympic networks then and now


The Winter Olympics may be a fond memory for many of us who had an opportunity to see them live, but I wasn't just looking at the skaters and skiers. Let me tell you about the contrasts between the recent 2002 games and when I had a chance to visit Calgary in 1988 and interview the IT staffers who worked for both operations.

The Calgary games were a complete IBM solution, and back then they used Sytek broadband networks and SNA protocols on IBM's big iron (for the record, they had both a 3090 and a 3081). IBM assembled its applications from a tool called Cross System Product, which at its heart worked with dozens of DB2 databases. CSP was picked because back then it was one of the few tools that IBM could use for rapid prototyping and deploying of applications. Interestingly, IBM for its results system incorporated applications that were developed in 1984 for the Yugoslavian games that originally ran in IBM's mainframe DOS (not MS DOS). The Calgary IT team had to convert it twice -- first to MVS (another IBM mainframe system) and second from Serbo-Croatian to English. The results system had gone through several iterations since then, including the fiasco at the 1996 Atlanta games. Notably, for Salt Lake the results system (along with the other major IT applications) functioned flawlessly.

IBM lost its Olympics work to SchlumbergerSema, who got the contract for the next several games' IT plans. This week I had an opportunity to compare what IBM did in 1988 with what SchlumbergerSema did for Salt Lake. Gone is the CSP-developed Info88 information system that was used by athletes, spectators, and others to keep track of who won which event and other information. The Info2002 system was Java based and ran on ordinary PCs with web browsers. Instead of broadband networks, Salt Lake had a Sonet ring with dozens of T-1 lines connecting to the various venues.

Applications originated for the Barcelona 1992 games were field tested at various World Cup matches and then modified further for Salt Lake: these were also mostly Java-based along with custom built applications in C+ and C#. There are numerous applications to track transportation and logistics, accreditations and security badges, and systems that are used by on-air commentators and press to track participants and events.

Redundancy is the byword for the Olympics, and even back in 1988 there were four different networks that connected each venue with the main data center: the SNA network, leased T- 1s, mobile packet radios or fax machines (well, that doesn't count as much of a network, but it did come into play when everything else went south). The Salt Lake games weren't any different: each venue had two different leased T-1s connecting it to the main Sonet ring, traveling through two different physical paths. Each server had twins or in some cases a third backup unit, spread across two different data centers. "You don't want a lorry or a snow cat to take out your cables," said Robert Cottam, who was the chief integrator for SchlumbergerSema and as you can tell, from the UK.

Doing the Olympic IT implementation is a full-time job for dozens of staffers. In a few weeks, Cottam will travel to Turin Italy where the 2006 winter games will be held. "It takes about three to four years to plan an Olympic system," he said.

In Calgary, there were 150 PCs and 200 3270 terminals. Most of the PCs had 3270 adapters (remember Irma?) to connect them to the IBM mainframes. In Salt Lake, everything was running TCP/IP. They had 225 NT boxes supplied as part of the Gateway corporate sponsorship and 145 Sun servers that were purchased directly, along with thousands of PCs connected as well. The Calgary IT budget was about US$120 million -- Salt Lake's was $300 million (which tracks well with inflation, or even a bit better).

What was the biggest IT problem? You had to really dig deep here, because everything worked as it was intended and there was virtually no downtime across the IT infrastructure. "One of our NT raid disks crashed about an hour before an event," said Cottam. "That was fixed in half an hour and we were able to go live without any problems."

One thing no one had to worry about in 1988 was Internet- based port scans and other intrusions. The Salt Lake networks were scanned a number of times, and firewalls and other security equipment thwarted various break-in attempts.

We have come a long way in the 14 years since I covered Calgary. Sytek is gone, CSP is a memory for many of us, and broadband means a DS-3 instead of cable TV connection. But the one thing we can all be thankful is that the Olympics came off well, and I congratulate the many professionals and volunteers who contributed to its success.

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David Strom
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