InteropNet: The show behind the show

A lot of work for the people behind the networking conference's own network.

For any big convention, getting all the required network connectivity in place and keeping it working is a major undertaking, often requiring the creation of an entirely new physical and logical infrastructure.

Add to that a requirement that hardware and software from 25 sponsor companies be a part of the network, and place the whole thing at the premier trade show for networking companies, and you’ve got some idea of what goes into InteropNet.

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As both a showcase for the sponsors and an integral part of the infrastructure of Interop itself, InteropNet is an attraction for attendees in its own right. Regular tours let visitors observe the 60-strong NOC team, which is made up of both staff from the sponsors and enthusiastic volunteers.

Glenn Evans, founder and CEO of Acrux Consulting, is the principal architect of InteropNet, a position he’s held for the past four years. What does he think is the toughest part of the job?

“I think it’s getting all the moving parts going in the correct direction,” he said. “We have approximately 22 sponsor/vendors involved in the project, and they each bring something to the table, but they’re each trying to get some benefit out of it for their own company.”

Keeping the various vendors happy, according to Evans, is a key part of keeping InteropNet on track.

“In general, they all work together very well – there are some cases where we do have competitors sitting side-by-side, and so the people management side is always a big challenge,” he said.

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Ken Bocchino is a principal systems architect at F5 Networks, a manufacturer of application delivery controllers, which has been a part of InteropNet for four years. He agreed that the priority is always the best interests of the network.

“If something does come up, we all kind of work together as a group – the name badge comes off, regardless of what company you represent, and you really focus on how, as a team, can we solve networking challenges, which is fairly unique,” Bocchino said.

Fortunately, however, Bocchino and other vendors involved in this year’s InteropNet all agree that the process has been relatively smooth. The initial assemblage is done off-site, where everything is plugged in and tested to make sure that it all works together, before getting torn down and shipped to the show floor in trucks.

At the moment, the work is going well, according to Evans – though he is prepared for that to change.

“That’s not to say that, in the next two hours, we won’t break it and make a mess of it, but at this point, it’s all going well,” he said.

The planning and prep work done for InteropNet are critical, allowing workers to be better prepared for the inevitable snags, said Tim Titus, CTO of PathSolutions.

“If a forklift winds up driving its tongs through [an equipment pedestal] and damages some switches, we can end up getting that stuff swapped out and still have a very smooth-running network,” he said.

PathSolutions, whose performance monitoring and management software will be used to track any problems that arise at InteropNet, is in its second year at the show. Far more experienced is hardware manufacturer Avaya, which is using its new network fabric technology – which uses a technique called shortest-path bridging – to provide backbone connectivity at the event.

“It’s been relatively smooth sailing so far,” said Avaya network solutions architect Steve Emert. “Aside from a small IPv6 issue where we needed the Avaya Bangalore R&D team to step in and provide a fix overnight, we didn’t experience any major headaches at all.”

Titus, of PathSolutions, said that Avaya’s technology is impressively robust. Shortest-path bridging makes it easy to configure a port as a member of a network, and it communicates to all the other devices that “you’re a part of this.”

“It seems to be a couple years ahead of Cisco’s technology, and it just makes designing and supporting a large network with multiple VLANs a lot easier,” he said.

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Until the show is over, however, everyone involved in InteropNet is prepared for the worst. F5’s Bocchino said that it’s almost too quiet.

“This year’s actually been quite peaceful, compared to years past,” he said. “There’s at least one general thing that comes up before we launch the network for the attendees. We haven’t found it yet, so I’m sure it’s out there.”

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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