Michael Passingham - 17 Oct 2013 - V3.co.uk
The need for speed is everywhere. From superfast broadband rollouts across the UK to new, faster 4G mobile networks from the likes of EE and Vodafone, we live in an era where doing things quickly is a must.
Perhaps nowhere is this truer than Formula One. For IT companies working to supply these firms it provides a challenging environment, and one that can be used as a great sell for their services. While digging through the hyperbole can be a chore, there are genuine IT lessons that can be learned from the firms that supply Formula One teams.
The chance to learn occurs on a fortnightly basis for nine months of the year as F1 teams and drivers trot across the globe with all manner of equipment, much of which is entirely ancillary to the cars themselves.
But long before the laptops and personnel arrive, a team of network infrastructure engineers will have already been and gone, laying the groundwork so teams have a proper "plug-and-play" experience as soon as they arrive.
AT&T, technical partners of championship-winning team Infiniti Red Bull Racing, maintain that the services they provide at circuits in 19 countries across the world is actually a two-way street of learning.
Rebecca Atherley, a spokeswoman for AT&T, said the firm is "learning a huge amount about how to apply our services in a dynamic, global environment and in effect setting up a new office location every two weeks for the team."
It is of course not uncommon to connect two arms of a business across continents, but the real technical feat here is creating a temporary network that is robust enough to ward off any potential cyber threats, of which there are many, according to Infiniti Red Bull Racing's CIO Matt Cadieux.
Red Bull won't say exactly what the terms of their deal with AT&T is, either in terms of speed or latency. All they would say was that there is close to zero latency from track to factory.
The proof of the network is in the usage, however, and Red Bull is quick to affirm that without the high-speed capabilities of AT&T's network, in-race decision-making would be a much less effective experience.
At the final race of the 2012 F1 season in Brazil, Sebastian Vettel was involved in a first-lap crash, which left him last and with damage to his car. It was at this moment that the quietly working data network truly sprung into action, with all of the car's 100+ sensors now under the spotlight as the team tried to assess the damage.
The 15 engineers and analysts present at the circuit and another team back at the Infiniti Red Bull Racing factory in Milton Keynes – 6,000 miles away – needed everything they could get. From trackside photos of the car and television footage of the accident, to 3D renderings of sensor data and driver radio feedback, no stone was left unturned.
In previous years, Red Bull said its team would have brought the car into the pit lane for inspection, but with the technology available to them, they decided that the car was safe to continue. Vettel went on to win the championship for the third time in succession.
Red Bull's own story is repeated up and down the F1 pit lane, but it will be interesting to see how the lessons learned from the highly challenging nature of F1 filter down in the wider IT industry.
Andrew Edison, European vice president of AT&T, said he believes the lessons could be found in the initial setup phase of new networks.
"In the commercial world we find it's often better to set that technology up first to get things up and running and then to deliver a more robust connection afterwards. It's making us and our partners explore alternative technologies and partners which can be tuned up more quickly. It's putting more innovation into our supplier management."
In July, V3 also spoke to the CIO of Lotus F1 Team Graeme Hackland as he set about refitting his team's entire IT infrastructure in a bid to stay ahead of the game as Formula One transitions into a new set of regulations for 2014, including an overhaul of network technology to improve decision-making.
F1 teams are not the only industry, though, to start cottoning on to the importance that a high-speed network can have. Cinema chain Vue recently announced that it is embarking on an upgrade to its network to move to faster fibre connections.
Vue runs its 779 screens at its 82 branches from servers hosted in each facility. The firm said that by hooking these servers to the fibre network – which will offer speeds four times faster than its existing copper connections – it can monitor and fix screen issues far more quickly than before.
Roland Jones, technical services director at Vue Entertainment, told V3 there would be several benefits from the move.
“We have a massively distributed estate of computers and previously we have been connecting those over ADSL, but the need for better control and passing data between sites, in both directions, means we need a better setup,” he said.
“Cable allows a much more stable, synchronised and non-contended connection to all sites, so we can improve on our reporting and request to change movies between different screens," he said.
Clearly, in a world where information is everywhere, making fast decisions based on fast access is vital, and firms from top F1 teams to cinema chains are accelerating their efforts to take advantage of these benefits.