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Flying the flag for the most tech-driven Olympics

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Martin Walshaw, senior engineer at F5 Networks, discusses how organisers made Rio a tech as well as a sporting success.
The closing ceremony may be behind us but the Olympic technology debate will surely rumble on.
It was always going to be tough. According to Olympic technology partner Atos, running the Games was equivalent to setting up and running the infrastructure for a company of 200,000 employees with four billion customers. The challenge was further exacerbated by Rio being the first Olympics to have key applications hosted on the cloud and to utilise 4G networks.
While the swimming pools turned green and question marks arose over cycling routes, the Games largely proceeded without a major technological incident. So how did the International Olympic Committee (IOC) get match fit and make it all work?

Don’t drown in data
Throughout the Games, the Olympic Technology Operations Centre (TOC) processed huge waves of data, gathering information from each pitch, court and track for the purposes of statistical analysis, as well as providing internet connectivity for all of the athletes and staff.
This year in particular, wearable technology and connected devices used by athletes and trainers to monitor performance, or by spectators to enhance the Olympic experience, will have considerably strained Rio’s upgraded 4G network infrastructure. Add to that an unprecedented level of data generated by social media activity and the challenge to keep bandwidth. This was never going to be easy.
To address these challenges, the organisers clearly put a solid traffic management solution in place that was capable of scaling to meet demand and able to take into account contextual variables over the entire Olympic period, such as distributing user application requests based on event policies, data centre and cloud service conditions, consumer location and application performance. As the number of connected devices and buildings continue to rise, these solutions are increasingly important to keep high-profile events such as the Rio Olympics on track.

Security on multiple fronts
With all this data congesting Brazil’s networks, it seemed as though the Olympics provided hackers with the perfect opportunity to take advantage by targeting organisers and spectators alike.
Worryingly, a survey by the World Economic Forum found that cyber-attacks were only ranked 23rd in the country’s leadership concerns, compared with 2020 hosts Japan, which ranked cyber threats top in national concerns, suggesting the stage was set for cyber chaos.
With its enticing scope for notoriety, financial gain or protest, the Olympics will have offered many opportunities for hackers, their efforts aided by the deluge of data and number of devices (and therefore application gateways) available to infiltrate. As DDoS and malware tools become easier to use and even purchase as a commodity, more interested parties than ever have been empowered to attack Olympic technological infrastructure.
It is therefore a testament to the vigilance of organisers that they were able to detect the range of threats that were undoubtedly putting systems under severe strain. Given the huge number of connected devices vulnerable to attack, it will have been paramount to implement a centralised management system capable of flagging threats in real time, alongside encryption services and DDoS defence tools to secure information and ensure apps are protected from being maliciously overloaded.
Given the Olympics is such a globally observed, ‘always-on’ event, 24-hour threat surveillance will have been key to keeping Rio 2016 running smoothly and coping with fresh threats. Furthermore, continued education of system users – including staff, spectators and athletes – has been, and will continue to be, vital as we look forward to future large-scale events.

Protecting the Olympic legacy
When we consider the large volumes of sensitive information that was available to be targeted, whether it was official IOC credentials, information about the marketing plans of sponsoring companies or financial data of tourists, it is clear that the Olympics is not just a sporting event but a billion-dollar industry, requiring vigilant protection across the whole period of the competition.
While the relatively new technological infrastructure in Rio may imply greater vulnerability to the widening array of cyber criminals, the city’s recent infrastructural upgrade will have played a significant part in protecting IOC systems and the legacy of the event itself.
Looking ahead to Tokyo in 2020, the inaugural use of a TOC and cloud hosting has been a vital step to prepare for the huge volumes of data that will be processed in future Games. As events on this scale become ever more tech dependent, the hackers’ techniques will continue to adapt with rapid sophistication. Keeping up with the sheer scale of it all and the accompanying threats will always be a challenge of Olympic proportions. It is now up to Tokyo to go for tech gold and build on Rio’s example.