Like so many around the world, I was transfixed by the spectacular opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. From everything I had read I was expecting a grand spectacle - two years in the making, at a cost of a few hundred million dollars, with more than 15,000 performers. In particular, I was really curious to see what Zhang Yimou, the overall director of the opening ceremonies, would come up with.
Zhang Yimou is one of my favorite film directors. I first discovered his work about ten years ago. He is part of what is known as the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, the name given to the first group that graduated from Beijing's film making school in the 1980s after the devastating Cultural Revolution.
His films are visually stunning. Hero, for example, is one of the most gorgeous films of all time. He is also a great storyteller, whether directing a historical epic like To Live or small, intimate films like The Road Home.
I was eagerly looking forward to Zhang Yimou’s opening ceremonies, and he surpassed all my already high expectations. It was truly fascinating. It was also an incredible high wire act to put on in front of the whole world.
The opening ceremonies actually made use of physical high wires in a scale that I suspect has never been done before, but it was not their literal use that so impressed me. It was the near flawless execution of the overall spectacle. It was not without incidents - a top dancer was seriously injured during a rehearsal, - or without controversies – the voice we heard when an adorable little girl was singing a patriotic ballad was not her own. But given the incredible complexity of the live production, it is impressive how well it all went.
As I was later reflecting on the risks involved in such an elaborate, live production, I was reminded of IBM’s experiences with the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Since 1960, IBM had been an official sponsor of the Olympics, as well as the overall technology provider. The Olympics were a unique opportunity to showcase IBM's technical prowess in front of customers and the world at large.
Having just recently launched our Internet initiative, we were hoping to establish IBM as a major Internet player by developing the first official Olympics website. The site offered near-instantaneous results for all sporting events, in addition to information about the athletes, schedules, photos and news. We publicized the website extensively and invited the world to come use it.
In 1996 the World Wide Web was truly in its very early stages. The Olympics took place less than a year after Netscape went public, which many consider the key event marking the transition of the Internet from a research network used primarily by the technical community to the commercial behemoth that it went on to become.
The new World Wide Web had the feeling of magic, but, in 1996, it was pretty primitive magic. To begin with, the vast majority of people accessing the Web at the time were doing so over slow dial-up modems with bandwidths of 56 kilobits per second or less. Only at work, if you were lucky, did you have access to faster broadband speeds. It wasn't until years later that broadband usage in the home became commonplace.
As we were planning the IT infrastructure for the Olympics website, hardware was not an issue. We used IBM's SP family of parallel supercomputers which we were confident would provide us with all the computing power we could want.
But the software for web servers was quite immature. Netscape's web software was the most widely used in those days, and while it was adequate for small workloads, its scalability was suspect. We could not use it. Instead, we used the open source Apache Server as the basic web server, and custom built the extensions needed to support its content, applications and other capabilities.
We were pretty sure that the Atlanta Olympics website was the largest such web project anyone had undertaken so far. Because it was all so new, we did not know how many people would come to our website and what features they would use once they got there. We were well aware of the considerable risks inherent in doing such a complex, new project on such a global stage. We knew, for example, that beyond a certain number of users, the response time would start to degrade, and if sufficiently stressed beyond its capabilities, the system could become unstable and crash.
But, we felt that this was exactly the kind of market experiment we should be doing to learn what was needed to support large numbers of live users on the Web. We were part of a wave of innovative, experimental projects that were trying out all kinds of new Web applications and services, hoping that our Internet audience would understand that this was not yet a prime time application - more of a beta system, - and would thus forgive its shortfalls. We got as ready as we possibly could before the games opened - and then crossed our fingers hoping that things would go well.
Our Olympics website worked quite well, except for some unduly slow response times when traffic got very heavy. Overall, the site handled 187 million hits – that is, individual pieces of information served to users. We learned a lot about the requirements for building and operating large, complex websites. All in all, it was a very successful experiment.
But, while the experience with the website was quite positive, IBM's Olympics high wire act ran into unexpected troubles with one of the production applications. Most of the computer systems worked flawlessly, including the applications that delivered the results from all sporting venues to scoreboards, judges and commentators. However, there were problems with the application that delivered the event results to news organizations and reporters around the world. These caused the results to be delivered late and in some cases they included erroneous information.
The problems were contained within a few days, but by then the public relations damage was done. Reporters were justifiably unhappy with not being able to get the results from the various events in a timely way and wrote some pretty negative stories about IBM. It was a humbling experience.
IBM went on to handle the winter games in Nagano, Japan in 1998 and the summer games in Sydney two years later. Everything worked flawlessly in both Olympics. Testing times were significantly increased, including three major technology rehearsals for Sydney. Usage of the Web had exploded, but by then large, complex websites had become just another production application.
The 2000 Sydney games were the last IBM was involved in. The growing efforts and vast computer systems needed to support the games made it hard to justify the escalating costs of being the Olympics technology sponsor. After extensive negotiations, the forty year relationship between IBM and the IOC came to an end.
Trying out something that has never been done before, in a world stage like the Olympics is about as high a high wire act as they come. Such risks are inherent when you are pushing the frontiers of innovation. Every so often you stumble, and are then painfully reminded how risky high wire acts can be. But, when everything goes as planned - as with Zhang Yimou's magnificent spectacle, - something truly special has been created. In the process, the innovation bar has been lifted to a whole new dimension, totally redefining the art of the possible.
I bet that the opening ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics in London will be quite a show.