Republican National Convention venue gets network makeover

Zamboni storage room now a temporary office space, wired for voice and data


ST. PAUL, MINN. — What does it take to convert a hockey arena into a site that can handle the technology demands of the Republican National Convention? Roughly 25 miles of cabling, for starters.

Slideshow: Go behind the scenes of setting up the RNC's network

Since gaining access to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, convention organizers have laid miles of cable, removed 3,500 seats, started transforming 30 arena suites into temporary media studios, and begun rigging the trusses that will hold lighting, speakers and other production equipment.

As venues go, the arena's openness and existing infrastructure have kept the IT challenges manageable, says Max Everett, CIO for the committee in charge of the 2008 Republican National Convention.  But with less than a month until the convention kicks off on Sept. 1, there's still plenty to do to ready the Xcel Center, home of the Minnesota Wild professional hockey team, for the 45,000 expected participants.

"The big issue for us is capacity. What we're doing far exceeds normal usage," says Everett, who served as director of IT for the Republican Party's 2004 convention in New York City. Everett moved to the St. Paul area 14 months ago as his involvement in this year's convention intensified.

"There are a lot of people pulling wires everywhere right now," he says. With the main fiber runs laid, most of the ongoing wiring is to extend voice and data coverage to temporary workspaces, which are being located in every conceivable spot. For example, 30 people are working out of the arena's Zamboni storage room. Locker rooms, too, have become temporary office space for convention staff. (See photos of the converted Zamboni room and more in our slide show.)

"We have a lot of people working in odd places," Everett says. "We try to make use of every square foot of the building."

In a walk through the arena with Network World, Everett fielded requests for additional laptops and connectivity from convention staff members. But the requests didn't ruffle him. Changes are all part of the plan, Everett says. Sometimes staff can't anticipate all the gear they'll need until they arrive and have a chance to really see the space, he says. "I just assume we're going to have to run stuff to every nook and cranny."

Live access

Viewers around the world will be able to watch when the Republican Party formalizes its nomination of Sen. John McCain for the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Every major television network (and plenty of minor networks) will be onsite. In addition, 130 radio shows will broadcast from the convention. For Web viewers, Ustream.TV will provide a platform for broadcasting live video streams from the four-day event.

Working with telecom provider Qwest, the television networks are using a mix of fiber, satellite and microwave networks for video traffic, Everett says. "Some will do editing and production here on site, some will use fiber long-hauls and go all the way back to where their normal production sites are, in New York or Atlanta or wherever," he says.

Television crews doing on-site editing and production will operate out of arena suites that have been converted into temporary studios. "For every anchor you see on TV, there are 100 people behind them, making things happen, cutting video, getting things uploaded, handling interviews," Everett says.

Crews also will work out of media trailers parked at RiverCentre, a convention center adjacent to the Xcel Center. IT teams took advantage of elevated walkways connecting the buildings to run fiber to the RiverCentre parking garage, where the television networks' production trailers will be located. The idea was to piggyback cable runs on existing structures whenever possible, to limit the amount of temporary construction required, Everett says.

As the official telecom provider for the event, Qwest also is working with Everett to provide capacity for the convention crew's internal network, which as many as 600 staff members will use for e-mail, file sharing and other applications. Qwest is hosting a number of the convention staff's applications, including e-mail, in its Minneapolis data center.

Inside the Xcel Center, IT managers have a main computer room for their gear, plus switches are dispersed in racks all over the building, Everett says. Managed services provider Unisys — which has offices in the Twin Cities area — is helping with day-to-day IT operations, including monitoring the convention servers, manning the IT help desk and providing project management assistance.

For the convention's internal network, Everett is using wireless sparingly, in an effort to limit interference in areas where the media depends on wireless technologies. Specifically, wireless microphones operating in the 2.4GHz spectrum will be given priority. "Our goal is to make sure those work really well," Everett says, since hundreds of media teams will be using wireless microphones on the arena floor and in the stands to interview delegates and other attendees. A spectrum coordinating committee will work with the media to inspect and check-in wireless devices to minimize interference issues, he adds.

As for cellular networks, the wireless carriers have been busy upgrading their services in the Twin Cities area. "That's both for coverage and capacity," Everett says. "Not only do they want you to have five bars on your phone, but also they are aware, like all of us are, how many people are going to have BlackBerry [devices], wireless cell cards, things like that."

Verizon Wireless, for instance, has spent more than $4 million to upgrade its network in anticipation of an expected 33% increase in voice calls and 150% increase in data traffic in and around the convention site.

Next up, Costa Rica?

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security  has designated the convention a National Special Security Event, which means the U.S. Secret Service leads security planning. That takes some of the burden off Everett and the other IT staff, particularly for things such as surveillance.

But IT security remains a key concern for Everett, and he's been working with vendors including Cisco to appropriately batten down the convention's networks, applications and data. Without going in specifics about the IT security technologies in place, Everett says the trick is providing the right balance between a locked-down network and one that is accessible enough to let convention staff and volunteers arrive at the arena and be able to get their work done.

Meanwhile, Everett says his biggest challenge these days is prioritizing the remaining IT opportunities, now that the core IT projects are nearing completion. "There are a lot of opportunities and only so many days to do them. We really want to find the ones that are the best bang for the buck, the ones that are going to engage people the most."

On Sept. 4, he'll shift his focus to dismantling the network, recovering the IT gear, and returning donated assets to their proper owners or designated charities. There will be no partying for Everett on the evening the convention closes: Tear-down starts right away and will be completed within 10 or 12 days, he estimates.

After that? "I have no idea where I'm going after this. Maybe to Costa Rica," Everett muses. "I'm not sure yet."

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