Plenty can go wrong in a football stadium: the lights could go off, a fire could break out or the ticketing system could crash as thousands of fans queue at the gates. At stake is the loss of big money or, even worse, human lives.
In Germany, Bundesliga stadiums are using IT to make their operations safer and more secure. Technology has become another must-have, with hot bratwursts, cold beer, sheltered seats and, of course, a winning team.
Borussia Mönchengladbach, a club near the Dutch border, is playing in that league.
The club's new stadium was completed in 2004. Plans for a much larger multifunctional arena, which IBM initially proposed in the 1990s, were abandoned in favour of a less expensive football-only stadium after the team dropped briefly to the second division.
Although not one of the 12 stadiums to host the World Cup games, which begin in June, the stadium meets Fifa requirements for international games, such as between the German and Columbian national teams on 6 June.
Security and safety are big priorities at the 46,000-seat stadium, built on land used by German and then British armed forces. "Our concerns about safety began the day we started digging," said Anton Häring, director of technical operations. "We weren't too sure what we were going to find in the ground after so many years of military use. But everything was just fine – no bombs, no polluted soil."
From the start, German police listed their demands, and they were many, according to Häring. The police have three main facilities at the stadium: a video surveillance control room at the top of the stadium; an interrogation and jail block in the basement; and a general station at the front of the stadium.
All three are connected to the police department's own fibre-optic cable network in the stadium, which is linked to the country's central crime enforcement centre. The network is also linked to the stadium IT network. Pressing one button, for instance, instantly collapses swivel bars at all gates, allowing fans to flee the stadium in case of an emergency.
The stadium has 34 surveillance cameras, which cover the inside of the stadium and adjoining parking lots. All cameras can zoom within a meter or less of an object.
Tap-proof digital TETRA (terrestrial trunked radio) phones ensure airwave security. The phones are designed to block background interference, which is an issue at football games, enabling users to easily understand each other. They are also equipped with a GPS transceiver so that emergency personnel can be located and directed to wherever they are needed.
Smoke sensors located throughout the stadium can be monitored from the control centre. When one sensor goes off, an alarm is sent to the control room. When two go off, the fire department is alerted; firefighters can be at the stadium within four minutes.
An emergency generator is located next to the stadium and kicks in the second electricity from the local power company fails to flow.
As a general contractor, T-Systems, the IT services arm of Deutsche Telekom, won the bid to provide many of the stadium's technical systems, including lighting, cabling and communication systems.
Preventing hooligans or fires from disrupting a football game is one thing; making sure fans can buy tickets online or in the stadium and later pass through the automated gates to watch a match is another. Those services require reliable IT systems, software and voice and data communications, according to Borussia IT director Frank Fleissgarten.
The stadium is equipped with 34 servers and more than 250 computers, nearly half of them thin clients.
Pico mobile phone base stations, providing additional inbuilding coverage, are available from all four German operators, in addition to wireless LAN hotspots in the stadium, lounges and other select areas. Besides managing its own fixed-line telephone system, the stadium operates a DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) network and is equipped to migrate to VoIP (voice over IP) in the future.
The stadium is wrapped in fibre-optic cable beginning in catacombs underneath and winding to the upper level where IT and broadcast control rooms are located. The network is connected to more than a dozen ground-level distribution points that connect various IT systems.
Automatic ticketing gates, with scanners to read bar-code tickets, and thin clients in outdoor concession booths are connected to the backbone network via cable linked to the distribution points. The gates are already equipped to support RFID (radio frequency identification) when the club's management decides to issue tickets with smart tags, according to Fleissgarten. "Almost all big German stadiums are moving to RFID-based ticketing systems," he said. "It's just not a priority for us right now."
Parallel systems are in place to ensure continuous operations, according to Fleissgarten. "Every critical IT system is double; we even have a double-cluster firewall," he said. "We're really serious about IT security and reliability, especially with our ticketing operations."
Borussia uses a ticketing system based on ERP (enterprise resource planning) technology from the former Navision, acquired by Microsoft a few years ago. "Even if our Navision server should fail, we have a way to keep the ticketing system running," said Fleissgarten.
In line with Borussia's commitment to IT security and safety, management opted for a more expensive nitrogen-based fire-extinguishing system in its server room, which ensures several minutes of oxygen, instead of a cheaper carbon-dioxide system. "That gives anyone in the room enough time to get out," Fleissgarten said. "We just hope we never have to test it."