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Behind the Scenes with Novell Connecting Points, Part I

Novell Cool Solutions: Feature
By Karen L. Grant

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Posted: 23 Oct 2000
 

Planning the Tradeshow Networks

Editor's Note: After major tradeshows like Comdex and Brainshare, we always receive a lot of e-mail asking for details about how the Connecting Points network is set up. Our readers are very impressed with the tight security, reliability, and scalability of these temporary networks that take such a huge pounding throughout these events, and wonder what kinds of tricks are being used behind the scenes. Not that any of you have exactly this kind of network (knock on wood...), but you never know what you might be able to use. Here's the first part of a three-part series that reveals how it's done. If you have further questions, let us know and we'll try to corner this frequent-flying team and get more info.

Introduction

The other night I had a horrible dream: I was in my office, slaving away at a critical work project (due last week, of course), when the vice president stopped by my desk and demanded I design a temporary network able to support 50,000 people in a location 2000 miles away. He gave me one week to set up the system. Oh, and by the way, he said he'd treat me to lunch if I succeeded. That wasn't a dream, that was a nightmare! And believe it or not, this kind of nightmare is a daily reality for the tradeshow network experts at Novell.

The Tradeshow Network group sets up and configures Novell Connecting Points networks at large tradeshows such as Comdex, NetWorld+Interop, and Brainshare. Connecting Points are workstations that provide tradeshow attendees with e-mail and Internet access. In addition, attendees may use the provided printers to print schedules and word processor files.

Connecting Points give Novell great exposure at tradeshows, but also provide the added benefit of allowing Novell to showcase new products. Additionally, Novell is able to observe some of these new products in a production environment, allowing for testing and debugging.

In this issue of Cool Solutions we begin a three-part series examining the nitty-gritty details of setting up a Connecting Points network--from the design and planning phase to the actual building of the network. In Part One we'll look at the planning and designing of the infrastructure. In Part Two we'll examine the process of setting up and configuring server hardware and software. In Part Three, we'll look at all the issues involved with the client hardware and software.

With an average of 250,000 attendees at Comdex and 70,000 attendees at NetWorld+Interop in Atlanta, the headaches involved in planning, designing, and implementing a temporary network are phenomenal. Yet, the process used by the Tradeshow Network group can be pared down to help you, whether you administer a 50-user network or a 2000-user network.

Novell Tradeshow Experts

The thought of preparing a temporary network to serve 300,000 users in a city on another continent gives me a headache. Luckily, a team of very dedicated and talented engineers make up the Novell Tradeshow group. The team consists of Gary Norton, who supervises the server processes; Shawn Bezzant, who's over desktop and client issues; and Rhet Thalman and Connie Straw who oversee network connectivity.

Designing the Infrastructure

Customize the Plan

Just as you would never throw a party for 50,000 people without a detailed plan, so it is with the Novell tradeshow team. The first step in preparing for a trade show is to come up with a plan. Our tradeshow team meets to decide what resources are needed and how the network should be designed to accommodate the attendees (or users).

Each tradeshow is different and therefore requires a different design. Every tradeshow starts out with a detailed plan that includes a design of the network infrastructure. This customized plan takes into account the following:

Tradeshow location

Each convention center around the globe offers different services such as number of available phone lines and power hookup.

Audience

The needs and interests of the convention attendees varies from tradeshow to tradeshow. For example, Novell provides network setup for the PGA Showdown golf tournament in Utah. As you might expect, the needs of the tournament attendees differ greatly from Brainshare attendees.

Number of users

The tradeshow experts receive a count of registered attendees prior to a tradeshow. However, they must also plan for last-minute attendees and unregistered guests.

Number of clients

The number of possible clients is dictated by the tradeshow management. Novell is allotted a certain amount of space for Connecting Points at each tradeshow.

Number of locations of connecting point clients

Again, the number of locations is dictated by the trade show management.

Services offered

The management of each tradeshow requires different services be made available for attendees. For example, one tradeshow requires services for attendees to vote for best booth. For some tradeshows Novell offers free dial-up access or wireless cards.

So, when the tradeshow team prepared for the NetWorld+Interop tradeshow in Las Vegas earlier this year (May 2000), their plan looked something like this:

Tradeshow location: Las Vegas, Nevada

Audience: Mostly network professionals and system administrators.

Number of users: About 50,000

Number of clients needed: About 200 Connecting Point clients

Number of locations of Connecting Point clients: Four separate Connecting Point locations.

Services offered: E-mail, internet access, and printing.

Address the Structural Questions

Once these issues have been defined, the tradeshow team can begin answering some of the structural questions like:

Designing the tree

The Novell tradeshow team relies on the power and speed of NDS-V8 to breathe life into Connecting Points. NDS-V8 is enormously scaleable, allowing for more containers and objects in the tree.

Generally, the NDS tree for all the tradeshows consists of a simple tree with all users in one container. And there are usually a lot of users. For example, this year Brainshare had around 8000 attendees, NetWorld+Interop in Las Vegas had around 60,000, and, as mentioned earlier, Comdex had around 250,000.

"NDS-V8 accommodates a lot more objects in a container than NDS 7," says tradeshow team member Gary Norton. "Prior to NDS-V8 we used an average of about 7500 users in an Organization Unit. With NDS-V8 we use one OU for all users. At Comdex we throw 300,000 users in one container, and NDS-V8 handles it beautifully."

You may be thinking, Gee, if the the power of NDS is partially due to its hierarchical structure, then why do the tradeshow experts place all the user objects in one containter in a one-level tree?

"We do it because we can," says Norton. "We are administering a 300,000-user network, and I have one tool to administer it, and I only have to go to two places to change things. That's considerably easier than Active Directory or domain model. Not only is NDS-V8 larger, it's much easier to administer."

There is no need for multiple user object containers. The same network services and access levels are provided to all attendees, and the NDS tree only exists for a matter of days before it is deleted. Also, time is an issue. Our tradeshow experts have to populate each tradeshow network tree with thousands of user objects. If they had to create several NDS containers, decide which user objects should go into which containers, and populate several containers, it could be very time consuming.

The services available to users do not, however, reside in the Organization Unit containing the user objects. This design allows users to spend less time walking the tree. Prior to NDS-V8 the tradeshow team had multiple user containers with users who all had the same needs. It was easier for the administrator to have the users walk the tree to one container than to replicate alias objects through the tree.

"Putting the services in the same container as the users is probably the better design," says Gary Norton, "but the reason I choose to keep the services and users in separate containers is for speed of administration (due to established automation tools used to populate the tree). If I open a container that has ten applications it is immediate. If I wait for the tree to scan 300,000 users objects, it's just not worth the time. So, that's why we have broken the rule."

(Note: In Part Two of this series I'll explain how the Novell tradeshow experts populate the NDS tree with all the thousands of user objects.)

Defining the Partners

John Donne's saying "No man is an island" definitely applies to Connecting Points. Novell relies on their partnership with several other companies to create Connecting Points.

For example, most of the hardware used consists of Compaq servers and desktop machines. Compaq originally provided these machines on a loaner basis, and, as time went on, Novell purchased the machines from Compaq. In addition, Nortel provides the switches and APC provides the Uninterruptible Power Supplies.

In addition, the tradeshow team must set up relationships with connectivity partners such as local telephone companies and Internet service providers. Connectivity partners vary from show to show and are usually identified by the tradeshow management.

Planning the Hardware

When planning the amount of hardware needed for a particular tradeshow, the tradeshow team first considers the number of Connecting Point clients needed. Generally there are 200 to 300 Connecting Point computers at three or four separate locations at each tradeshow. Printers are also placed at each Connecting Point site, the number varying depending on the size of the show. For example, at the NetWorld+Interop in Las Vegas this past spring, the team connected eight printers, two at each Connecting Point site.

In addition, the projected amount of time each Connecting Point computer will be in use is a consideration. In a standard office environment, a computer connected to a LAN is in use on the average 20 percent of the time. This does not mean the computer is just running, it means someone is actually doing something on the computer requiring network access. Connecting Point computers are in use more than 90 percent of the time. The tradeshow team has to provide both hardware and software capable of handling the additional network traffic and usage.

It is also necessary to determine how all the hardware is to be connected. For instance, fiber optic links are used between Connecting Point sites at the main location. Microwave links are necessary to connect between the remote sites. Both media provide the high-speed throughput necessary to give tradeshow attendees quick access to Connecting Point services.

At NetWorld+Interop in May, the team decided 10 servers and 200 clients could provide Connecting Point services for the 50,000 attendees. Remember, the three main services Connecting Points was to provide included e-mail, Internet access, and printing. So, the tradeshow team decided two servers would be dedicated to printing, three servers to GroupWise, and four servers to Internet access. There would also be an additional server containing a large data volume. This data volume would contain all the data that would be necessary in case the tradeshow team had to rebuild the entire network.

A more detailed description of what was on each of the ten servers is as follows:

  • 2 Servers had only NDS and NDPS
  • 1 Server had all GroupWise gateways including the GWIA and was used for GroupWise WebAccess.
  • 1 Server was dedicated to the GroupWise Post Office Message Store
  • 1 Server ran all the GroupWise Post Office Agents
  • 4 Servers ran Web access NLMs, the WebSccess gateways, and Novell Enterprise Web Server.
  • 1 Server was a "Vault" server which contained a large data volume.

Past experience is a great teacher, and the tradeshow team has learned what types of hardware will be needed and how much hardware to pack. Says Norton, "When a user walks up to Connecting Points and sees a rack of powerful servers, it's important to know we don't need that much hardware to do the job. It's just that we take our top requirement need and then just mirror it. If we have a drive go out or memory go out or a board go out, we don't want to mess with nine models of machines."

(Note: In Parts Two and Three of this series I'll give you more details on how each server and all the Connecting Point clients are configured.)

Planning the Software

Okay, so the team has the hardware planned for each Connecting Points site, now they need the software to make those babies run. At NetWorld+Interop each of the 200 Connecting Point clients had Windows 98, Netscape Navigator, the GroupWise client, Microsoft Word, and the Novell client.

Since new and sometimes not fully-tested Novell software is used at Connecting Points, it is necessary many times to update software on Connecting Points clients. In the old days, the team visited each of the 200 to 300 clients to update software or apply patches. With the advent of ZENworks for Desktops, this is no longer necessary. Our tradeshow team uses the NAL (Novell Application Launcher) feature of ZENworks to push software updates and patches out to all the clients. This can be done while attendees are using the clients.

Interestingly, Gary says that the team has utilized several of the security ideas found in ZENworks Cool Solutions. They particularly liked the ones in the article Security in the Schools.

Preventing downtime

Another thing to consider is how to provide fault tolerance and high-availability. If the network goes down, Novell looks bad. So, the network absolutely cannot go down, at least not due to anything related to Novell-provided hardware and software. And when you consider that new and not fully-tested software is oftentimes used, high availability becomes even more critical. That's where NetWare Cluster Services and RAID 5 come to the rescue. Ideally, both NetWare Cluster Services and RAID 5 are used the tradeshows. Sometimes though time restrictions have prevented the team from implementing Cluster Services, but they always have at least some form of fault tolerance, which is usually RAID.

Securing the Network

Making each user account secure could be a real headache. In order for an NDS user account to be secure, it has to be password protected. Each attendee could be required to enter their username and password every time they visit a Connecting Points client. But that would be too time-consuming and old fashioned!

Luckily, there is an easier way: Smart Cards. The tradeshow network team decided to make the ID badge at the tradeshows be data cards, containing the attendee's name, user id, and NDS password. Then with the right hardware connected to each Connecting Point computer, attendees need only to swipe their badges to log into the network and access all the services.

If you attended several tradeshows in which Connecting Points was present, you may have noticed different card readers used at Brainshare than at NetWorld+Interop and Comdex. The reason for this was that at Brainshare the tradeshow team used re-writable cards that can be re-used. In addition, these cards contained more information, including first name, last name, company, and position. The NetWorld+Interop and Comdex cards only contained the username and password.

Another difference between the two types of cards is the cost of the cards. The cards at NetWorld+Interop and Comdex were provided by the company that hosted the show and cost about a penny each. The cards at Brainshare were provided by Novell and cost about a dollar each.

The Smart Cards are not only useful for attendees logging on at Connecting Points, but also for status tracking purposes. Novell was able to use the Smart Card technology to track who logged in and for how long. Novell does not invade the privacy of e-mail messages.

In the future, the tradeshow team plans to use Novell digitalme, which will allow users to re-use their Smart Cards at all the Brainshare tradeshows.

In order to maintain network security from outside the network, outside Internet access must be controlled. The tradeshow team implements Novell BorderManager to provide a firewall and limit access to Connection Points.

Stay Tuned...

Lucky for me, the vice president's request for a temporary network able to support 50,000 people was just a bad dream. But, now that I've gotten a taste of what the Novell tradeshow team goes through to plan Connection Points, I think I could probably handle such a request. In upcoming issues of Cool Solutions I'll give you the details of how the Novell tradeshow team sets up Connecting Points.

Uh oh, don't look now, the vice president is head straight for my desk, and he has a pretty determined and nasty look on his face. I'm outta here!

Note: For more information on all of the Novell products mentioned in this article, see the Products Page.

Here are the other two parts of this series:

About the Author

Karen Grant is a technical writer with many years of experience documenting Novell products. She works for Write Tech, Inc, in Spanish Fork, Utah.


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