The London 2012 Olympics begin in a matter of weeks. I bumped into Russ Ede, who is responsible for the London 2012 Olympics website, and he shared some amazing information about what it takes to create a website that can stand up to the most widely watched sports event in the world.
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First, you have to remember that there's no do-over with these kind of events. Everything simply has to work when the games go off - delays or postponements are unthinkable. So what goes into creating a website capable of supporting the Olympics?
Perhaps most surprising, there's no massive server farm. The actual processing taking place on the website is relatively small. However, there is massive use of the Akamai CDN to distribute content around the world. The Olympics website has been using live video to transmit the progress of the Olympic torch and has contracted with Akamai to distribute it.
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This increasing use of live video may account for what Akamai CEO and president Paul Sagan said last week at the GigaOM Structure conference. Over the next five years, Akamai will have to increase its capacity 100-fold due to the growing popularity of streaming live video. While there's redundancy built into every bit of the website, there is no massive hardware infrastructure in place.
Another surprising thing about the London 2012 Olympics website is that it leverages open source extensively, using LAMP as the primary software foundation. Despite the demands placed on the site, there's an apparent ethos of running "cheap and cheerful," which precludes use of expensive proprietary software packages.
While the Olympics website did stream the torch relay, it won't transmit video footage of the events themselves. Another entity takes care of that. However, the website is responsible for distributing the stats of the events, receiving feeds from every event and venue and making the data available to organisations that can make use of them, including the event video distribution organisation. When you see information crawling across the bottom of your television screen during the broadcast, know that it came through the website.
Performance testing easier than incorporating cutting-edge tech
Ede told me about several other interesting challenges associated with running the London 2012 Olympic website.
Forecasting usage and ensuring performance at the forecast levels - Apparently, there were many, many meetings about total use. It would have be easy to predict a very large number, but in a "cheap and cheerful" environment, over-provisioning "just in case" is a non-starter.
Testing performance and robustness at scale - While over-provisioning was out, it is still necessary to confirm that the expected loads can be handled. The Olympics used the Soasta load testing service to ensure the site could manage hundreds of thousands of simultaneous users. In fact, Soasta tested up to one million users over the course of one hour.
The changing nature of the web itself affects the Olympics website - Every Olympics experiences the latest web development. For the 1996 Atlanta games, it was the basic web presence. Since the last games in Beijing, Twitter and Facebook have emerged; both can cause user "storms" and an explosion in traffic. Russ anticipates that as British athletes participate in the London games, and particularly when they contend for medals, the website will experience very high traffic loads.
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The fact that every Olympics has to deal with something new indicates just how rapidly the internet is evolving. It's no easy task. One new development the website hasn't been able to incorporate is supporting Instragram, as it's too new for the planning and work the website group has been doing over the past two years. One can be sure that, by the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic games, there will be new developments for that website to support - perhaps some that don't even exist at all today.
I'm sure my household will be like many of yours during the games - watching TV every night to view every available event. It's likely that we'll also have other devices being used to stream other video and track Twitter and Facebook. It's quite remarkable to reflect on how rapidly delivery of information and content is changing as new internet capabilities come along-and how quickly people adopt them and come to find them as critical to their involvement and enjoyment of the events.
Given my conversation with Ede, I also know that my appreciation for what goes into making all this information and content available is going to be much greater. It's a remarkable undertaking. I'll have my eyes wide open in late July and early August.
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