The wires behind the UK's Millennium Dome

On New Year's Eve, 12,000 invited guests, including Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair, will get the first official glimpse at what lies underneath the Millennium Dome, the largest structure of its kind in the world -- perhaps not only in size but in notoriety as well.

More than twice the size of Atlanta's Georgia Dome, which housed the 1996 Olympics, the Millennium Dome can fit more than 18,000 double-decker buses inside and hold up to 35,000 visitors per day. But perhaps more impressive than the structure itself is the information technology infrastructure behind it.

The main backbone that will link the Dome's various multimedia exhibits is an ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) network built using equipment from 3Com and costing 3 million pounds ($US4.8 million), said Gary Bettis, the Dome's IT director.

"The network has been one of the most difficult logistical projects," Bettis said, adding that work on the high-speed loop was begun as long ago as June.

The network uses 3Com's CoreBuilder 9000 and 7000 switching technology for the multimedia aspects of the Dome's 14 individual "zones," each of which present a different, themed exhibit.

The zones include "Talk," where visitors go from a presentation about the spoken word to the future of communication, including the use of "avatars," computer-generated images that represent users online. Another zone is "Shared Ground," which lets visitors leave recorded messages in "the world's biggest time capsule."

The ATM network handles the Dome's communications technologies -- including voice-over-IP (Internet Protocol), the CCTV (closed circuit television) and the public address system -- over fibre optic cables. It also supports a multichannel "infotainment" system, which delivers broadcast quality video to 60 display units and video walls -- essentially giant flat-screen displays -- throughout the Dome.

In addition, the network supports a variety of other mission-critical aspects of the Dome, encompassing everything from ticketing and scheduling to the Dome's intranet and Internet access, offered at terminals throughout the structure.

The 20 acres under the roof of the Dome will open to the public on January 1, and it is a sure bet that the eyes (and media) of the nation and beyond will be watching very closely when, after two and a half years of construction, the Dome finally opens. During the latter half of the year, it has been virtually impossible to open up a newspaper without seeing a mention of it.

"Everything must work by the 31st of December," Bettis said, noting that although it was definitely the largest project he has worked on, he was confident that everything would go as planned.

Because the Dome uses very little legacy technology, nobody seems to be too worried about any possible year-2000 related problems, although there is a Y2K department at the Dome.

3Com even used the year 2000 computer problem in its Dome-related advertisements, with a recent ad asking "Who in their right mind would choose to have the world's media focused on their network at midnight this New Year's Eve? ... You may well call it madness. We call it confidence."

"We're going to have problems, without a doubt," Bettis said. "But the priority things will work right ... I don't foresee any major difficulties," he added. Just in case though, there are disaster recovery plans in place.

The Dome is also using Computer Associates International's Unicenter TNG systems management software to manage all its computer systems, which it hopes will offset any problems that do occur.

After the end of March, the IT department will only remain on staff as support, Bettis added, noting that he was only on as a full-time employee until June.

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