Walking in a WiFi wonderland

Sochi games are a software-defined networker's dream run

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Olympics – summer or, in this case, winter – provide a great proving ground for telco technologies: a huge number of users of widely-varying technical literacy, lots of disparate device types, a fairly lumpy movement of users between indoor and outdoor venues, and of course, stringent security requirements. Vulture South spoke to Dean Frohwerk, Avaya's olympic architecture solution lead, about what's involved getting and keeping the Sochi Winter Olympics online.

From one Olympics to the next, you'd expect the normal progression of technology to be reflected in demands on the network – demands for more bandwidth, new services to be supported and so on. However, Frohwerk told The Register, this event represents a big discontinuity from the Vancouver Olympics.

“The types of users and the large peaks in user numbers – those aren't a lot different,” he said. What has changed is how the users want to connect: four years ago, he said, users would either use their cellular connection, or seek out an Ethernet cable.

Back then, wired traffic outweighed wireless traffic by 4:1. “In Sochi, it's all about WiFi,” he said, “it's a complete reversal from what we saw in Vancouver.”

And it's not just about the volume of users – although he noted that when it came time for the opening ceremony the user base went from 2,000 people to 40,000 people overnight. The network also needs to be able to secure “insiders” (the organising committee, for example, as well as event officials and media) from athletes, volunteers, audience members and so on.

This year also marks the first time that a Winter Olympics has used IP video on the games network, instead of laying out money on a separate coax-based video network to take the broadcast feeds and distribute them to athletes and officials.

And, of course, there are the all-important timing systems provided by Omega.

It adds up to a network that needs lots of bandwidth to feed lots of access connections, with a big whack of data centre capacity and management in the middle.

By the numbers

Let's start at the backbone, since as Frohwerk said, one of the key requirements of the Sochi network was that it be “able to scale in place”. The Sochi network uses Avaya's VX9000 kit to create a 54 Tbps internal backbone: “there's no imaginable scenario that will fill that”.

That's doled out to eleven competition venues, four data centres, and two media centres, each of which gets multiple 10 Gbps Ethernet links for resiliency; when all's going well, the pairs of links are both active, shipping 20 Gbps into the venues. Upstream connections to the Internet are provided by telecom partners Rostelecom and Megafon, providing enough capacity to let the Sochi network ship between 1 Tbyte and 2 Tbyte of traffic to and from the Internet each day.

With an average of three devices per user, the network's supporting as many as 120,000 individual access connections through its 2,500 access points, and there are also 6,500 IP phones for officials and volunteers.

As well as security, the network has to prioritise traffic like timing and results, the 36 IPTV channels, and of course the communications of officials and the organising committee. That's handled by Avaya's Identity Engines.

This handles both the access security, and the assignment of a user to the correct one of seven VLANs for the organising committee, the officias on the ground, athletes, volunteers, the 14,000 members of the media present, the audience, and the IPTV feeds. The VLAN assignment also provides the means by which users on the premium paid WiFi access can get priority over the free service.

The data centres at the centre of all this reflect the way things have changed in the last four years, Frohwerk said. Everything is virtualised, with Avaya's distributed top-of-rack switching and large racks to provide east-west capacity within the DCs.

“We then have the ability to apply network virtualisation over the top of that – so we don't have separate switches for internal and external traffic,” he said. The only departure from the fully-virtualised approach is in the timing network, for which Avaya's local SI Atos Origin runs separate access switches.

“Everything else is a virtual overlay”, he said.

The amount of virtualisation within the data centres plus the huge backbone capacity, he said, also means that from an administrative point of view, “we can treat it like one big data centre fabric instead of four separate data centres. The Fabric Connect Core has been a big thing – it's the first time we've taken that approach in the Olympics.”

The build

Of course, one does not simply walk into Sochi (to paraphrase the popular meme).

Avaya has had the four years since Vancouver to prepare for Sochi, and one way it made use of that time was to build out a complete Olympic-scale network in Santa Clara. That, Frohwerk said, let them emulate the full backbone and half of the venues.

“We were able to test that more than a year ahead of Sochi – it's probably one of the most tested networks you'll find.” Over in Russia, he said, Avaya started working on-the-ground two years ahead of the opening ceremony (along with its local partners).

There are now 40 Avaya staff working on the ground, and they have access to the Santa Clara labs, so that if a problem arises, they can replicate it back in the US in real time. That's also given the engineers the chance to look for ways that the network can be further optimised during the evvent, he said.

The full list of Avaya solutions shipped into the network is:

  • Avaya Aura
  • Avaya Virtual Enterprise Network Architecture
  • Avaya VENA Fabric Connect
  • Avaya Virtual Services Platform 9000
  • Ethernet Routing Switch 5000
  • Ethernet Routing Switch 4000
  • Avaya Wireless LAN 8100 Series
  • Avaya Identity Engines

Who did what?

With a week's traffic in hand, Avaya has also taken a look at the top ten apps on the network:

Athletes' favourite apps at Sochi

All of the popular apps at Sochi (except Tinder). Data: Avaya

The Register notes that missing from this list is the dating app, Tinder, which has reportedly been something of a hit in Sochi and has helped at least straight athletes (because we all know there are no gay athletes in Russia …) stay warm when the heat of competition has passed.

Perhaps it's just that Tinder, while popular, doesn't generate as much traffic as WhatsApp … ®

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