Premier League clubs have unique IT challenge's - such as 36,000 fans trying to access the wireless network on a Saturday. Dan Raywood kicks a ball around with Tottenham Hotspur's IT boss, Philip Rose.
Implementing a wireless network is one challenge, but imagine if your network were used by 300 people day-to-day – except that, once a week, for 90 minutes, 36,000 would also try to access it?
That is the challenge faced by Philip Rose, IT and telecommunications manager at Tottenham Hotspur FC, London. Running an IT team of four people, including one security officer whose primary role is network security, he and the club have met all the typical IT problems in recent times, along with some not-so-usual instances.
For the first time in years, Tottenham is playing in the UEFA Champions League. While of benefit to the club's finances and reputation, this has brought a level of complication to the IT team's tasks.
Rose said that the UEFA dimension has had a “massive” impact upon him personally and had been a real eye-opener for the club, as Spurs had had to spend “an enormous sum to bring the ground up to spec to meet Champions League requirements on all sorts of facilities” this year. Even small things have been affected, such as bringing the floodlights up to specification, providing internet access to the camera gantry and 3D TV.
The stadium wireless facility was not sufficient for the advanced needs of the press, as there is not a significant back wall investment. “We were using standard DSL lines and I made the decision that we would hardwire every press seat,” said Rose. “We can provide either voice data or internet access to every press seat. We had tremendous feedback from the press on how well that has been perceived,” he said.
“We had to make provision for new spaces for back of house for our press conference room and for a press workroom. We have now got a 50-seat press workroom – a temporary build on Premier League days in a room that is normally used for our mascots. We have had structured cabling and power laid into this room. It is connected up in the space of half a day, giving 50 press seats with access to VLAN, which connects to our standard managed internet.
“The problem with wireless is that if it goes down because we are using a third-party solution – as many clubs are – we are reliant on its product support to rectify things. There is simply not the time in the middle of a match, if suddenly everybody loses wireless connectivity, to phone support and wait for their people to rectify it. It is far better to have over-provision on hardwired networks with spare switches and a virtual LAN ready, with backup circuits also available.”
Along with this, Spurs supporters are putting an extra burden on the wireless network. Rose said that on Christmas Day 2009, “everybody opened their presents and found an Apple iPhone”, so that now on a match day, the GSM and WiFi networks are swamped. What used to be small packet voice calls have become big packet voice and data multimedia messaging images.
Despite O2 and Vodafone having masts on the roof of the stadium, there is not the bandwidth available to meet the WiFi demand, Rose said.
This is not just a Spurs problem: all stadia are struggling to provide for that need. Rose said: “My view is that in many ways the ability to use your mobile phone can be a matter of life and death.
“So now, as a major project, we are trying to renegotiate how we can do this, but it is yet to be resolved, quite frankly. We have been talking to all of the big wireless system providers for the past 12 months and we have had demos from a number of US companies that are at the cutting edge of that technology.” He said the ‘goal' was to provide every supporter with both wireless and GSM capability.
Joining the club 17 years ago, Rose began in the mail order department, while simultaneously running its IT. Following the takeover by ENIC in 2001, the newly-appointed chairman Daniel Levy saw that Rose was trying to cover two roles and this led to the formation of the club's first IT department.
I asked Rose what had been his largest challenge in 17 years at the club – ten of those solely in the IT department. He said that the wireless aspect was undoubtedly it, but that he believed there may be light at the end of the tunnel.
The club is developing a stadium north of its existing White Hart Lane ground, hedging its bets by applying to take over the Olympic Stadium after 2012, while a £45 million training academy is being planned for Enfield.
Rose said he wants to deliver a stadium with systems that will be future-proofed to the best available knowledge at the time. This will mean knowing roadmaps for the likes of Microsoft, Google, HP and Cisco. “What we do not want to do is unveil something in 2013 that is out of date in 2014,” he said. “What we are trying to do is establish a technical partnership with some of the big brains. The details of those partnerships will have to be worked out into some form of commercial contract, but I want to be able to sit down with the research team at BT or Dell or wherever to understand what they are working on, stuff that is not in the public domain at the moment, so that we start to understand when would be the most appropriate time to buy into new systems or new technology.”
One way that the club has future-proofed is by outsourcing its ticket and merchandising payment-handling, a move that led to the appointment of its full-time security officer. “We realised fairly early on, when we had version one of PCI, that we were going to have some major gaps and we brought Alex in to basically plug those. That's where he had experience and we have made huge changes to our internal systems, to our firewalls and to our processes.”
In terms of overall IT security, Rose said that the general attacks tend to come from either criminals or the media, who believe that that information has value because they can sell it. The IT team has to guard against incidents such as people sitting in cars to listen in on the WiFi waveband trying to snoop on broadcasts, or GSM networks trying to pick up packets of data.
He said: “That is a concern and in the past we have always had suspicions about how information perhaps is leaked to the press. Is it an outside job? Is it an inside job? We periodically engage expert security teams to sniff offices for bugs and do all that sort of spy stuff.
“These days, it is so easy for somebody to install either a keylogger or a covert listening device. They are so small that unless you are trained and know what you're looking for and have the right tools to do that job, it is virtually impossible to detect them.”
With all of the challenges, Rose has made one clever policy call in addition: no players may access the network via email or mobile and nor has Rose a duty to manage their devices. It is a decision I am sure he made with some thought, not just on the ‘spur' of the moment.