Sochi Winter Olympics built with mobile in mind

On the Sochi slopes, dozens of spectators bask in the sunshine, quaffing glasses of wine and working on their tans as snowboarders surf through the slushy remains of what was once a halfpipe. This year's Winter Olympics are officially on course to be the warmest on record, but whilst skyrocketing mercury levels could not have been predicted, Avaya has spent the last four years plotting every possible eventuality as the official network provider of the Olympic family.

This, when you think about it, is no easy task. The 2014 games events are spread across eleven competition venues with three villages, two media centres and a whole host of other buildings thrown in on top. From the coastline of the Black Sea resort to the faraway mountains, an army of athletes, journalists, staff and volunteers must be connected to the world through an intricate web of data centres and virtualised networks created by Avaya.

It's a wonder then that Dean Frohwerk, the Olympic Architecture Solution leader for Avaya, had time to speak to me at all. He, however, seems remarkably unflustered.

"I'm a Canadian so we say Canada win the gold medal in short track speed skating," he says cheerfully. "That was pretty special for me. But at the end of the day I'm a curling and hockey fan, so I've been making sure to catch that too."

His calmness after having spent almost three years just planning, then another eighteen month implementing and physically installing a successful network, unified communications and applications is remarkable. Still, Avaya was also involved in the Vancouver games of 2010, meaning that it's learned a few lessons this time round.

Frohwerk explains "we did something called Fabric Connects here that has allowed us to put virtualised networks on top of the physical infrastructure, running services really quickly and easily."

Network virtualisation makes perfect sense for an event such as the Olympics. Network virtualisation is the basic act of decoupling the infrastructure service from the physical hardware on which it operates. It means that this new, more agile software-based network can better integrate with and support increasingly virtual environments by moving away from its hardware foundations.

For Sochi, this is vital because the Winter Olympics' sheer scale. As Frohwerk says, "In terms of Olympic family numbers, Sochi still has around the same amount as Vancouver had with 40,000 people. But whereas before some people didn't have any devices, now these same people often have two or three. So there's been a huge surge in network demand where there were dramatically less devices in Vancouver. This is why we've seen that massive swing from around 80 per cent of devices being wired at the last Games, to now where most people are connecting via mobile devices."

Indeed, in just a short space of time, our reliance on mobile devices has increased exponentially. In the case of Sochi, where the ratio of wired to wireless connections has gone from 4:1 in favour of wired at Vancouver, it's now 4:1 in favour of wireless at Sochi. Spectators don't want to be tethered by Ethernet, they want to be up close to the action and still connected to their peers across the globe.

As Frohwerk explains, that's been a challenge to build for. "Sochi's beach resort where all the indoor sports are based is 1,000ft below the mountain, so we had to put in a backbone between the two data centres. You're probably seeing a lot of beautiful photos from photographers halfway up the mountain taking pictures of the ski jumps, and Avaya's had to put wired and wireless connections in between the ski jumps wherever the photographers want to be."

Not only that, but certain events attract vaster crowds and consequently, a concentrated level of traffic. "The opening ceremony's the big one with a 40,000 seat central stadium here in Sochi," says Frohwerk. "But you can match the amount of traffic to human interest, for example when the torch was lit everything on the network lit up too with all the photos. In sport events during the breaks, between matches and so on, the demand goes up as well."

So as you watch the Winter Olympics over the coming days, spare a thought for all the work that Avaya's done implementing a network that can connect not only one seaside arena with another 50km away up a mountain, but with the rest of the world itself.

That solid network of data centres and cables, at least, is one thing that won't melt away in the coming days.