by Jennifer O'Brien

Exclusive: Why building tech infrastructure for the Commonwealth Games is so tough

Apr 04, 2018
Cloud ComputingCollaboration SoftwareInnovation

Ian Smith, the man leading a team that is building a digital network for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, says he’s “climbed to the top of the mountain” in terms of career highlights and professional achievements.

“I have worked on big global exhibitions, but all with a single theme. This one is multi-sport – where hockey is different from swimming, from athletics and lawn bowls – and it has a lot of different dimensions to it. You have to consider all of those sports and consider the fan experience, and the athletes and their needs. It is quite complex.”

Now, with the games opening today – and continuing over the next twelve days – Smith, who’s the VP and executive lead for the event, is excited to watch all his hard work on the multi-faceted, multi-sport project come together.

“It was very exciting for a number of reasons. The scale of it was quite large. We have 18 competition venues and 17 non-competition operational venues which includes the Games headquarters, operations centre, broadcast centre, athletes village – the list goes on – and they are all important,” says Smith.

There are 37 critical sites, including competition and support venues, across the Gold Coast. These sites are connected using a purpose-built network that stretches up the east coast of Australia and across to a data centre in Perth.

“It is a very dynamic environment – and it is very exciting because it is not like any other project you would work on. Things are done in parallel … so while you’re building infrastructure and sites, you are turning other sites on and managing them. So you’re building, deploying and managing all in parallel – and across that environment you have to manage change as well.”

Getting prepared

Building technology infrastructure for the Games hasn’t been without its challenges and it certainly didn’t happen overnight.It all started back in 2016 when Optus partnered with the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee (GOLDOC), the entity responsible for running the event.

Gold Coast 2018 Koala mascot Borobi

“It has been quite a long journey … and it has all the characteristics of a marathon and a sprint at the same time. It was out of the box fast,” he says.

In March 2017, Optus signed a contract with GOLDOC to design and deliver the games network and other services. The physical build of the Games network commenced last July and has continued since.

Smith says the Games’ tech team is one “very important cog in the wheel” in making the event a success. “We are all turning in the same direction to deliver the Games. We are also sitting within a fairly large ecosystem of other partners and providers … to deliver the outcome,” he says.

A single digital backbone

Around 6,600 athletes, fans and workers on the ground at the Commonwealth Games are connecting into the network which offers mobile voice, data, video, and IPT services.

“We are managing the whole environment … all the infrastructure we’ve deployed,” says Smith.

Optus is also providing network security services, and a managed public and private WiFi environment across competition venues which is used by GOLDOC staff, officials and media. Importantly, Smith said these Games are “unique and innovative” in that it is the first time all services will run over a single network, which offers big advantages in terms of deployment and management of the technology.

“Technology has evolved over time, so with these particular Games, we have the technology to build a single network that can carry voice, data and internet, that can carry broadcast video and audio all on the same digital backbone.

“So this is the first time we’re seeing a digital backbone for the Games. Why that’s important is it is simplifying the deployment because you only have to deploy one network. At the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, they had a separate voice network, a separate data network, a separate broadcast video network so they had to run multiple networks.”

Additionally, he said this is the first Games where a multi-service telco like Optus was selected by GOLDOC to step up and provide the digital backbone. “That is quite innovative and says the people that runs these have confidence there are now organisations that can facilitate that,” he says.

Getting down to business

Although Smith claimed to have “slept pretty well” during the entire project, he admitted there were some interesting challenges along the way. A big one was making sure the many suppliers could work together on such a complex job.

“If you’re going to be operating a big ecosystem like this … you need to make sure that you can partner effectively within that ecosystem. Interdependency is huge and you are all aiming for that one outcome.”

For instance, Optus is working with Cisco to build the network that connects officials, athletes and spectators. To manage the technology across all 37 operational, command and sporting venues, Optus has placed a dedicated team in the Optus Gold Coast Delivery Hub. Network management plays an integral part in the delivering the event, from ticketing to officiating.

Additionally, Smith says the region and location was another top challenge, both practical challenges that tasked the team in terms of building the infrastructure and in being able to access much-needed IT skills.

“This is the first time that a major multi-sport event has been held in a regional location. Typically, in the past we’ve gravitated towards big cities where all the infrastructure exists, and where you can get all of the users in quite easily,”he says.

“The regional location has posed some challenges in terms of infrastructure from a network point of view. We have laid about 426 kilometres of additional fibre optic cable around the Gold Coast. We have about 12 to 13 new mobile towers and we had to bring about 230 people in from all kinds of places, all over Australia, and some from overseas, to work on the Games because the labour market on the Gold Coast is not a labour tech market,” he says.

The third big challenge came in the area of network redundancy and resilience – and the sheer amount of work it took to deliver in this area.

“We put a huge amount of effort into ensuring the dedicated Games network was fully redundant and resilient. Across that wide geographic area, there was a wide undertaking to ensure the network is ready for Games time. There’s been a huge focus on that project.”

Asked if he’d have done anything differently in the lead up to the Games, Smith said the first thing that comes to mind is perhaps being able to start earlier. The team will present an official ‘lessons learned’ report to the people running the next Games, which will be held in Birmingham, England.

“Sometimes you can’t start earlier. The process just doesn’t allow for that, so in considering the lessons learned we have to be practical and say, ‘what could you have actually have changed?’ There will be some things no doubt, when we sit down and reflect on it, but the timeline is very tight from start to finish and it is deliberately so – and everybody that is working on it is focused on a single state and a single outcome,”he says.

“It is a ‘do-what-it-takes’ environment – and that’s one of the exciting things to be working on because everybody has the same attitude, right across the whole ecosystem. Everybody has this attitude, ‘We are going to do whatever it takes to be ready on 4th of April 2018 – and nothing is going to stop us.’ And that becomes not a culture, because that takes years to develop, but more of a movement. It’s a movement where everybody is focusing in the same direction. And it creates a power of its own.”

Next steps

Asked what’s next for Smith now that he has reached this “high” and career peak, he said he’s unclear how he’ll come down from it all.

“You end up standing on top of this big mountain, looking around and going, ‘mmm, what is the next mountain peak?’ . . . It is a challenge to come down from something amazing and looking for the next big opportunity.

“One of the gratifying things about being involved in this was meeting new people, meeting athletes, meeting sporting heroes, meeting new people in administrative roles and sport, and like most Australians I love my sport – I played lots of sport – and so that is a wonderful thing to be involved in.

No doubt, he’s excited about being involved in the event – in what he said is this once in a lifetime opportunity.

“On average, these sorts of big multi-sport events only reach our shores between 12 and 20 years, so this is the biggest one this decade. There aren’t many others secured for the next decade, so this is a big opportunity for everybody that’s involved in it.”