The five minute CIO: Ronan Burke

12 Jul 2013

Ronan Burke, IT and automation engineer at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin

The most important man in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin – apart from Robbie Keane or Jonny Sexton – is the IT and automation engineer, Ronan Burke, who ensures that whatever team is on the pitch is supported by cutting-edge communications and security technology.

How do you handle being the only dedicated IT operative at such a high-profile venue – is the key to have as much automation as possible?

Essentially, I’ve put in place as many automated monitoring systems as possible, to have advance warnings of failures or potential failure. And network monitoring to save me having to check every single switch or system. I have a suite of systems that I put together to proactively monitor all of the critical systems.

What are some of the critical systems the stadium needs to function?

The way I see it, one of the more critical is our ticketing system; our turnstile access control is called Fortress – an apt name. It’s a very large system and it works very well. The software ensures the right tickets get through the right turnstiles and also that the wrong tickets aren’t allowed through. There are about 150 computers running in the stadium. We’ve also got 190 CCTV cameras, and I have to ensure they’re all working.

Match days are obviously our bread and butter and we have a plethora of pre-event checks. Some of them lie with me, [and] we have a maintenance co-ordinator who co-ordinates the maintenance team.

Today I was doing a full mechanical check of the turnstiles and a software check to ensure the right tickets get through the right turnstiles and also that the wrong tickets aren’t allowed through.

Are all your key systems on-site?

We don’t do much cloud hosting for any of our systems. Our mantra is, ‘if it’s worth doing right, it’s worth doing yourself’. All of our systems are on-site except for off-site backups. It’s mainly because we have a lot of redundancies on our power network and both our internet connections – we have two fibre links from two different exchanges and I think we have in total 500 phone lines … if we lost one set of comms, we’d still have it from the other side of the building. And the network itself is redundant, too.

Many people probably don’t realise, but the stadium hosts conferences, as well as football and rugby matches. Are there different IT issues you have to contend with?

It can really depend on the conference – sometimes that can be just as busy as a match day. Recently, we’ve had a lot of technical clients that have had serious IT requirements with rebuilding and then testing needed on the day, whereas on a match day a lot of it is known from before.

Take this year’s Heineken Cup final; the event requires the ERC (European Rugby Cup) to use the big screens in the stadium. We’ve had to turn one of the studios from rather than being a TV presentation studio into a production studio where we have a vision mixer and an audio mixer running the shows. The ERC has decided to bring in its own production team because they have their own branding.

And you hosted the Europa League Final in 2011 – what was that like?

That was probably one of the biggest things we’ve ever done. We had to completely build a private network for the UEFA offices – they were here for about a week. It wasn’t an ordeal but it was an experience. And we had to double the size of our press tribune, which involved putting in new comms cables and building a completely new fibre network for photographers.

What’s the measure of a successful match day from an IT perspective?

Probably if nobody realises how it’s working, I think. The way I see the IT in the stadium is, it’s purely an enabler for someone else to do something fantastic with. If something is going on the big screen, or streaming to the world, that’s when it’s a success for me.

Given that it’s a small IT team, how important are external providers to support you?

That’s a tough one. I do have great support from our network support from PFH who were involved in the original build of the stadium, in conjunction with Nextgen. And the broadcast systems come from a company called Eurotek. We all work smoothly together and fix things quickly if they need to be fixed. To go back to ticketing, our major contractors have VPNs into the stadium, Fortress has 24 x 7 x 365 access, where they are able to look at the system remotely if needs be.

Is your role purely hands-on from day to day, or do you have a say in the IT strategy and look at what trends could affect how you do your job in the future?

I’m the kind of person who likes to keep their finger on the pulse – I want to make sure it’s all working. We do have on-site engineers and technicians who are cross-trained.

Previously during the first year or two it was very much a case of getting in the trenches and getting to know everything intimately. Now that we’re much more mature – we have around 60 major pitch events under our belts – we have a well-oiled team. Now I’m able to focus more attention on strategy, cost saving, future developments and I do that in conjunction with our stadium director and CEO [Martin Murphy].

I would be working with him on finding future trends and improvements. He’s the captain of the ship but we all consult with regards to the IT side of things.

What can you tell us about any new IT initiatives that are planned: will they impact on people’s match-day experience, or are they more about helping you to run IT more efficiently?

A lot of it is really just in the research and development stage but we’re always looking to future technologies and operations and customer interactions. We’re looking at high-density Wi-Fi, 4G phones, content delivery: it’s all on our radar.

You recently implemented a new Palo Alto system to secure Wi-Fi access for people in the stadium. Can you tell me more about the project?

It is a next-generation firewall. Rather than being a very static ‘yes/no’, rules-based firewall which is very good at protecting from the outside, what I use it for is understanding what’s actually happening on our network – that could be clients, customers, punters in for a match – and that helps us make some decisions in future.

You would expect lots of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram usage and interestingly we’re also seeing Netflix and RTÉ, so there’s a lot of consumption of content. This firewall can say: ‘this is videostreaming’, or ‘this is Skype’. Understanding what people are using it for allows us to focus better on what we can deliver. It’s super secure, got anti-virus in it, and it’s brilliant.

It allows me to do protection and content filtering. If someone needs to access a web-based platform but I don’t want that PC to do general web browsing, it allows me to do that. I can let someone go out to Facebook but not make any posts. It gives us massive control from a content point of view. We could have 2,000-5,000 people at a conference, each with an average of 2.5 devices. Now our port network is inherently protected.

I can block suspicious traffic that it recognises as botnets, spyware or DDoS. I can monitor or alert or proactively block that kind of traffic. And that’s not on our public Wi-Fi, it’s across the board in our entire stadium.

I am constantly surprised at what I see. There was a period of about a month where we were getting hammered by attacks from a particular location, consistently attempting remote desktop brute force attack. At one stage, it was 5,000 attempts a day – I couldn’t believe it was going to be that bad. It was all blocked because we have layers of security, but the system was able to tell me that this was happening.

I have seen plenty of clients coming in with laptops, and they might be infected with a Trojan. I was able to tell them they had a virus, because the system recognised the traffic and said this laptop is infected.

What’s your percentage of spend on IT security?

A sizeable portion. Some bits of the IT budget bleed into other areas, like automation and systems. It is important, just because being a modern stadium, almost everything runs on the network. The network was designed very well by a network security specialist, but there’s no harm in having another layer of duct tape on that!

How close are you to your ideal state from an IT standpoint?

What I would say is, I think that for what we’re doing it performs amazingly well. We haven’t been found wanting from a match day or event point of view and it was designed in such a way to be adaptable.

Our ethos is, let’s make it work and not just say ‘that’s not what we do’. We want to make things work for UEFA, the Navy, the Heineken Cup, Microsoft even. And the infrastructure in its current iteration allows us to do that.

We’d all like to have next big thing but we have to say ‘do we really need it?’, or, ‘is there a cost benefit?’ We’re always chipping away at it, making sure that bit by bit, everything’s being made that little bit better or more user friendly, or we make sure that a solution becomes a permanent addition rather than just for one event. We say: if it’s worth putting in for one occasion, then it’s worth having all the time.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic