Originally created 02/22/98

Raleigh scientist at center of Nagano data



RALEIGH -- When the curtain is drawn on the Winter Olympics this weekend, one man taking a bow will not have earned any medals. Yet thousands of his co-workers will be applauding his accomplishments.

Jack Overacre, a Raleigh resident and an IBM computer scientist, was the man who delivered what IBM promised but couldn't provide in Atlanta in 1996 -- instant results to 67,000 judges, reporters, athletes and spectators in Nagano and the millions of people downloading the more than 30,000 pages on the Olympics Web site.

It has been a pressure-packed performance, considering that IBM spent about $100 million just to demonstrate its prowess and to win customers. And it's a comeback from 18 months ago, when IBM's system for the Atlanta Games malfunctioned and angered organizers, fans and reporters.

IBM put Overacre, 52, in charge of building the network, a job equivalent to installing a system for a Fortune 500 company. His Olympics technology team of more than 600 IBM employees -- including 36 from Research Triangle Park -- learned from its mistakes in Atlanta and prepared better.

"The team here is very happy," Overacre said from Nagano. "They feel like all the hard work they're doing is paying off."

Overacre, a Durham native, earned a two-year associate's degree at Alamance Community College in 1969 and has worked at IBM in RTP ever since.

He met his wife, Becky, at IBM, where she worked in network management. Her father retired from IBM, and now the couple's son, Jay, works at IBM in RTP. The only family member not headed down the Big Blue path is the couple's daughter, Kelly, 19, a psychology major at N.C. State University.

"I told her she's going to find out what's wrong with the rest of us," Overacre joked.

There's certainly nothing normal about the itinerary Overacre has endured for the past 18 months. He has flown more than 400,000 miles between RTP, Japan and Sydney, Australia, where he is already building the computer system for the 2000 Olympics.

More than a dozen companies sponsor various types of technology for the Olympics. But IBM coordinates the various tools through the computer network it built to handle 1 trillion bytes of information -- more than five times the data on the entire World Wide Web.

For example, Seiko provides the timing devices, which are linked through the IBM network. The instant an athlete crosses a finish line, the time flies across the network so that people in the audience see it on the scoreboard, broadcasters see it on a video monitor, journalists receive it in a press tent and others see it on the Internet.

The network also ties into 1,300 computers and kiosks called Info '98 that are scattered throughout the competition sites. People attending the games can use Info '98 to access databases containing historical Olympic information, weather data and home pages designed by the athletes.

The most visible part of all this is the official Olympic Web site (www.nagano.olympic.org). It displays photos, graphics and results. The Web site network is being monitored by six people in RTP who work for Tivoli Systems, an IBM division that designs network management software.

"Failure is not an option," said Paul Allikas, Tivoli's director of consulting services in RTP. "And this year we've gotten through it without any problems."

That wasn't the case in Atlanta.

Although IBM had been a technology sponsor for decades, 1996 was the first time it offered to coordinate all technology elements.

It was a risk that became a nightmare. When the network wasn't crashing, it was slow sending scores to the Web site and to journalists, who wrote stories criticizing it.

When Overacre was put in charge after Atlanta, he vowed that Nagano would be different. Several factors worked in his favor.

The Winter Olympics are smaller than the summer games. While there were 130,000 athletes, coaches and journalists in Atlanta, there are only 67,000 in Nagano. And IBM didn't have to build the Nagano network from scratch since it transported chunks of it from Atlanta.

The 600 IBMers working in Nagano is three times the number who worked in Atlanta. Some people, including Durham resident Susan Owens, an IBM senior project manager in RTP, arrived in Nagano in March.

While exhausting, Overacre said the experience has been exhilarating.

"There are a lot of people who want to work on the Olympics," he said. "And once you work on one Olympics, you want to do it again. The feeling you get from being involved is amazing."