It isn’t easy to get a press pass to cover the Super Bowl, especially since my sports credentials are nonexistent. Nevertheless, I braved ice and snow to travel this week to Dallas and attend the media day with 1,700 other journalists to see what is going on in advance of the big game on Sunday. This is my second visit to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas and I still am in awe of the place. It is big, it is wonderful, and it is filled with lots of high tech. Oh, and I think there are some big beefy guys that come here from time to time to throw a ball around too.
The most noticeable thing as you enter the stadium is the assembly of midfield multiple video screens, stretching between the 20-yard lines. It is the largest high definition screen in the world, typical Texas. In addition to these TVs, the stadium has thousands more TVs, each with its own IP address and media server that are used for menu boards for the concessions and to carry advertising in the hallways around the stadium. All of this video is controlled from a central command center, where producers can schedule particular images to appear at specific times in different places around the arena. It is an ad-man’s wet dream to monitor how many hot dogs and t-shirts are being sold in real time and replenish low inventories in an instant.
Unlike older stadiums, including the one it previously occupied, the Cowboys wanted this to be as high-tech as possible. “With the new stadium, we’ve jumped to the forefront of a lot of new, emerging technologies. We started back in 2004, and we knew then that we wanted to build an infrastructure that would be available for future years,” says Walsh.
To give you an idea of the scope of the IT infrastructure here, there are 884 Cisco wireless access points scattered around, and more than 70 different wiring closets containing more than 40,000 wired ports. There are several different wireless networks for staff, press, guests and attendees that segregate their traffic. There is more than 8 million feet of Ethernet cabling, and 260 miles of fiber to support all the connections, and more than 100 TB of data storage too. Everything operates on a single network, including the point of sale terminals at the concession stands, 185 security cameras and access control doors, entrance ticketing stations, the scoreboards, and the public Wifi network as well as the more prosaic business computing needs of the staff. There is AT&T Wifi throughout the place, and enough cellular horsepower to support a hundred thousand individual phone conversations and video uploads concurrently.
“We wanted to have Wifi throughout the stadium, which we rolled out on our last Thanksgiving Day game,” says Walsh. “We know for a normal Cowboys game, we get 60/40 split of AT&T and Verizon cellular customers. We have spent the last six months having all the carriers increase their throughput and infrastructure to ensure that the fan experience continues to be great. We see peak loads for kickoff, halftime, and end game periods when everyone is doing video uploads. The mix of carriers depends on what part of the country our attendees come from.”
In essence, the Cowboys stadium IT organization has been getting ready for several months for its Super Bowl party. “We had the Cotton Bowl here and that was our big test run. During the first half of the game we fine tuned our access points (APs). And by half time we worked with Cisco and AT&T to push a patch out to the APs and got more Wifi throughput then all the previous games combined. We try to have 250 seats per each AP antenna and learned how to tune their radios to get the closest access points. It is a real challenge to get the optimal performance, but we are able to look at all of our access points in real time and tweak their performance. ”
CDW handled the large-scale conversion and consolidation from several older Cowboy data centers that were spread around town. They helped design the 5,000 square foot data center that now sits inside the stadium. (Link to the CDW B-roll video here.) “In the old stadium they couldn’t support any wireless upgrades, mainly because the building was built in 1969 and it was made out of solid concrete, making it difficult to pull cable through it,” said Lance Caserotti, the solution architect from CDW that helped design the project. The old data center had more than 600 aging physical servers, which were converted to 127 virtual machines running on 16 different HP blade servers using VMware. In addition to handling the stadium activities, the new data center also supports more than 30 different independent business units that are part of the Jerry Jones empire, such as souvenir stores and pro shops located across the country in more than 100 different locations and more than 500 employees.
Part of my fascination with the video technology is its ability to send real-time video streams to the jumbo midfield screens, in close to real-time. “Older stadium video display tech took sometimes as long as ten seconds to broadcast live video from the field to the arena screens. But ours has a 300 millisecond delay, which is about the blink of an eye,” says Walsh. They also are filming their games in 3D that are broadcast to private suites in the arena. “It is totally awesome,” says Walsh.
On Super Sunday, you will see some new technology. The NFL has developed several apps for Droid and iPad/iPhone to download and interact with during the game. Fans can have online real time stats, and be able to vote for Most Valuable Player at the end of the game from their cell phones even before they leave their seats. There is also a souvenir program for the iPad too.
And the Cowboys IT department isn’t sitting still. They are looking at other mobile apps, such as the ability to order food from your seat and go to an express pickup line where your order will be automatically charged to your cell phone account. “We have got the infrastructure in place and probably will roll that out next year,” says Walsh.