My summer road trip – 6 lessons from the back of a data truck in the Tour de France technical zone
If you’ve ever taken a road trip, you know that it has its highs and lows. Following the world’s best cyclists through the French countryside in a Big Data truck to deliver real-time analytics on live TV and a live-tracking website, that adventure comes with an extra shot of adrenalin — and some fast-learned lessons along the way!
Lesson #1: Forget your perfect network map
Having worked in telecommunications for most of my career, I’m used to clean data centres with neat cabling and tight security. So to get an idea of how the network design would map and accommodate all the technology partners and service providers for the Tour de France, I went along to the technical zone at the finish of the Paris-Roubaix race in April. This was my reality check:
And all of this would have to be built and decommissioned every day for all 21 stages of the Tour. I knew the Tour’s technical zone would be 20 times the size of the Paris-Roubaix, so we’d have to adapt and be flexible enough to meet the challenge of a very different environment.
Lesson #2: Get some good shock absorbers
Riders in the Tour cycle over 3,000 km. Our truck covers three times that distance and, trust me, it’s a volatile ride. Taking a mini data centre on the road has some serious implications. Would our servers and other equipment survive the shocks? While we use solid-state discs and single-unit servers to prevent anything coming loose, there’s still a vigilant pre-race checklist to minimise the risk. The live-tracking website going down isn’t an option for the technical team — so we learned to protect ourselves against the shocks early on.
Lesson #3: Have a back-up plan
Just like getting stuck without fuel or a breakdown on a road trip can be a disaster, we knew we had to minimise the time spent troubleshooting if a gremlin crept into the solution. With so many elements out of our control, it was important to have a contingency plan in place. We designed in ways to reduce risk; and have a simplified secondary cloud infrastructure on standby. We also have a powerful laptop with its own satellite internet connection that gives us 90-120 minutes to fix a fault or finish the race.
Lesson #4: Keep your cool
When you have a half-rack of equipment running on the inside of the truck and scorching European temperatures outside, you really need to keep your cool. That’s why the air-conditioning design and air-flow to the servers had to be carefully considered. With the mercury spiking to 45°C (117°F) outside the truck on some stages of the Tour, the server room was definitely the coolest place in the technical zone.
Lesson #5: Learn from your experiences – and take lots of photos!
Although our team spent over 100 hours a week preparing for the Tour de France, once you’re into the rhythm of the race and the road, you get a much better idea of the set up needed to deliver a successful solution.
Lesson # 6: Take the trip with your best mates
Spending this much time on the road, the technical team has become my second family. Every day is an exciting new challenge on the Tour de France. Moving to an operational way of working has been a chance to see our ‘can-do’ spirit and passion for excellence in action.
The trip has taught me that a robust technical solution will deliver the best viewing experience to millions of people watching the race. But it’s also taught me to keep things simple, to be adaptable to change, and to make the most of rest days — like going to the beach for an hour or two. This has been one of the coolest projects I’ve ever worked on — and a once-in-a-lifetime road trip!
Tim Wade — Lead Global Cloud Architect, Dimension Data.
Tim is responsible for the cloud infrastructure and satellite connectivity for Dimension Data’s technology solution for the Tour de France. He is an avid mountain biker, espresso drinker, and can be found on Twitter @RANDOMaaS.