As we celebrate the achievement and dedication of the athletes who competed in the Toronto Pan Am Games, and those who will be competing in the Parapan Am Games this month, it’s worth noting that critical to the games’ efficient operation and success is the technology infrastructure  managed and supplied by Cisco Canada and it partners.

Jeff Seifert, Cisco Canada’s CTO, has been heavily involved in ensuring that the Pan Am Games technology has gone off without a hitch. I had a chance to speak with Seifert about what makes Cisco’s involvement in international sports competitions unique, how they orchestrate the events, and the legacy they leave with the host community.

Cisco’s involvement in mega sporting events is not new. In fact, Cisco signed on as the official Pan Am supplier three years ago in London while supporting the technology requirements of the London Olympics, followed by the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. After the games in Toronto, Cisco will continue its sport involvement as it supports the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.

Since Cisco signed the contract for the 2105 Pan Am Games, Seifert and his team have been front and centre with the various components required to ensure an IT infrastructure “Gold Medal” performance (pardon my pun!).

The technology operation has to be so smooth so that, whether one is a spectator, competing athlete or member of the media, there is no option for any concern regarding the reliability and security of the systems. Races need to be properly timed, free wireless Internet provided to spectators, and high speed connectivity provided to the media, all across a host of venues often in remote areas.

And Cisco’s Pan Am margin for error is slim — imagine if the time clocks failed, wireless networks were unreliable or the media was unable to report the results. When hosting world class competitive events,  technology failure is not an option.

So how did Seifert and his team devise their Pan Am game plan and effectively execute? Staffing is key component, and normally for these huge sporting events, Cisco will have a team of staff and well-trained volunteers. In Toronto, Cisco’s volunteer team was bolstered by 300 students from 23 Cisco Networking Academy schools, participating in Cisco‘s I CAN Develop program.

The program, which works with high school and post-secondary students, sees schools host a permanent Cisco lab and each being “adopted” by a Cisco engineer who holds monthly webinars with students to help mentor and train them. These schools and colleges then ‘adopted’ one of the 57 venues, and the students served either as Venue Tech Specialists or Venue Service Desk Specialists, and their teachers and professors as Assistant Venue Techs.

This was a great opportunity for students to engage in the technology and systems on a large and practical level. There was even a student who came all the way from Iqaluit, Nunavut to help with the Games. Some schools gave their students course credits for their volunteer work, an indicator of how significant the experience was for their studies.

Schools have also  benefited by their involvement with Cisco and the Games. Durham College recently signed a five-year agreement with the not-for-profit Ability Centre in Whitby, Ontario to give the centre IT support at considerable cost savings, providing Durham College students with access to valuable work experience.

In addition, Cisco developed a program for 1,200 Grade 7 and 8 students across Ontario who joined Cisco’s I CAN Learn for a series of eight virtual field trips at the beginning of 2015, designed to expose students to the real-world application of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) through the sports of the Toronto 2015 Games.

Another challenge that Cisco had to address was connectivity; with so many venues and volunteers how could everyone be on the same page and prevent important information from being leaked or falling between the lines of communication? Cisco Spark was the solution; it’s a chat program that allows graphics and video links to be shared between people on different 24/7 Managed Services shifts, helping them to communicate and keep track of what is happening in the Network and Data Centre, and potential problems that need to be addressed.

And Spark proved useful not only for technology related matters. For example, when graffiti was spotted on the Cisco Pan Am clock at Nathan Phillips Square, someone took a picture on Spark, and it was cleaned up within 15 minutes. By giving their volunteers and employees communication tools that were utilized efficiently, Cisco was able to create and support a culture with a sense of purpose that led to a spirit of camaraderie between the volunteers. This is crucial when there are strict deadlines and standards that everyone needs to work towards as a team.

For the Games, everything needs to be rehearsed in advance so it can be executed as near to perfect as possible. And towards this end, everyone needs to move as a unified and cohesive team in a very short time. Unlike the Olympics where venues are built months in advance, with the Pan Am Games, the timeframe for setup is shortened considerably.

The last challenge, but certainly not the least, was security. The increased amount of critical and personal information that is shared and stored online has only upped the ante for Cisco, and major sporting events are always a target for cybercrime. Data ranging from security and accreditation credentials to tens of thousands of volunteer personal information, to the timing, scoring and results systems required the utmost in security best practices. Cisco worked with the Toronto 2015 organizing committee and solution provider Scalar to develop a comprehensive approach to information security. Since there is more connectivity the network itself acts as a sensor since there are so many people able to be on the lookout for any potential malware or data breach points.

In orchestrating an event of this type, a challenge, according to Seifert, is striking the balance between innovation and risk associated with new methods and technologies, versus using the “tried and true.” On the one hand, innovation is the heart of technology, yet, the need for reliability, security, and accuracy precludes anything that is not certain. That is critical to the confidence of the Games running without system malfunction of any sort.

Unlike some IT projects where deadlines may be moved, there is no such option when organizing, setting up, and running the technology infrastructure for a major sports event. The event is when the event is, and everything must be ready. Therefore, the stakes to get it done on time, and get it done right, are huge. Similarly, as mentioned previously, teams must work cohesively, and seamlessly.

True to the nature of technology, Seifert views the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games as stepping stones for further improvements and changes for the next Cisco challenge, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

I am sure given the success of the Toronto Fames, that without doubt, the Ciscoteam will certainly experience another gold medal performance in Rio!

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