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Novell Connecting Points

Novell Cool Solutions: Feature
By Mark Talbot

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Posted: 3 Jun 1999
 

Imagine a network constructed in a space of four days and populated overnight with 250,000 users. Imagine this same network delivering a messaging system that would send more than 5,600,000 messages in the space of five days. Impossible? If you attended COMDEX Fall '97 in Las Vegas, Nevada, you probably used this network and GroupWise to keep in touch with other conference attendees and people back at your office.

"The COMDEX IntraNet--Novell Connecting Points" was the largest live, single-directory tree network ever built. Designed in less than two months, built on-site in four days, operating for five days, and torn down in the space of six hours, Novell Connecting Points was a huge success. Although I normally work on Cool Solutions, user's guides, and online Help, this was too big to miss. I traveled to Las Vegas and helped the Novell Connecting Points team make history. Follow along, I'll tell you how it came about, how it was built, and how it went. Most importantly, I'll tell you what the whole experience means to you.

COMDEX's Problem
COMDEX needed an intranet. The largest technology trade show on the face of the planet needed a solution that would provide a secure messaging system and Internet access to approximately 250,000 users. What's more, because only 40 percent of COMDEX attendees pre-register for the show, the network would have a large influx of users in a very short time.

As daunting as 250,000 users sounds, COMDEX presented others challenges as well. The time-frame to pull this off was extremely short. Whoever accepted the challenge would have less than two months to design, implement, and test the solution; on-site construction of the network would be limited to a few days; and everything would have to be dismantled almost overnight.

The physical logistics of the show also presented problems. COMDEX is large. So large that it has to be held in two different convention centers: the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) and the Sands Convention Center. These two convention centers are located more than one mile apart. Additionally, attendees needed access to the network from different locations within each convention center. As if this wasn't difficult enough, conference attendees needed access to the network from their hotel rooms. If you've ever been to Vegas, you know that there are hundreds of hotels. In short, attendees needed virtual offices. Just because they were attending COMDEX didn't mean that the rest of the world shut down. Attendees still needed to get work done and stay in touch with the outside world.

One thing to remember is that this massive intranet would be live, in front of 250,000 conference attendees, not to mention every high-tech press writer and analyst in the world. This would not be a simulation or a canned demo. If something were to go wrong, the world would know. If everything were to go fine, well, everybody's messages would get through.

Novell's Solution
The COMDEX IntraNet--Novell Connecting Points. Why Novell and not one of those other big companies? Novell is the only company with the experience and products to pull something of this scale off. But we would need help. This is where Compaq and Bay Networks came in. Together, the three companies built the world-record network. According to Bill Sell, show director for COMDEX, "Novell's ability to deliver a system of this incredible scope and functionality within our exacting requirements made it the only choice for a show-wide system."

Okay, so this was the largest live, single-directory tree network ever built. Who did we knock out of first place and into second? Ourselves. The second largest network was built for 100,000 users. Who's in third place? Novell. Fourth? Ditto. You see, we've done this before--albeit on a smaller scale. If you've attended Novell BrainShare, InternetWorld, or NetWorld+Interop, you've seen smaller versions of Novell Connecting Points. In fact, Novell is quickly establishing itself as the de facto communications standard at industry trade shows.

The Setup
If you've never attended COMDEX, you can't imagine the unimaginable hugeness, the suffocating press of humanity. This year 250,000 attendees visited more than 2,000 exhibitor booths (more than 10,000 new products were launched). The show fills two very large convention centers. The Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) is the largest venue and is separated into two exhibition halls. We had two Novell Connecting Points at the LVCC: one in the main lobby and one in the south hall. The Novell Connecting Points network was managed and administered from a central Network Operating Center (NOC) located in the main lobby. This glass-enclosed room let attendees view the servers; unfortunately, it left the system administrators in plain view of the unsuspecting public. If you're a system administrator, that's just a joke. Not all system administrators deserve to be cordoned off from the general public: with proper supervision, many can lead normal, happy lives.

The other convention center, The Sands Convention Center, also had two Novell Connecting Points. Below is a photo of the Novell Connecting Points in the LVCC. Notice that every station is in use. In fact, it was rare that any of the workstations were empty during the five days.

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Below is a photo of the Network Operating Center. Notice that the adjacent Novell Connecting Points is packed but the administrators don't look too worried about problems.

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If the picture above didn't show you a clear view of the servers, here's a close-up.

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The Novell Connecting Points messaging system was made up of 52 Compaq Proliant 6000 servers in the NOC and 300 Compaq workstations located in the four areas mentioned above. The whole thing was connected together via Bay Networks' 10-base T switches. Each computer was equipped with a swipe card reader so attendees could swipe their COMDEX badges to log in to the system. This was a big improvement over previous shows where keyboard-impaired attendees (me) often found themselves incapable of typing a username and password to log in. Within seconds of swiping the badge, the GroupWise WebAccess client was launched and each user was in his or her own temporary GroupWise Mailbox. Not only did all 250,000 attendees have their own Mailboxes, but each user was listed in the GroupWise Address Book. Attendees could send messages to friends and co-workers who were also attending the show as well as schedule meetings with them. And because this network was connected to the Internet, attendees could send e-mail using Internet addressing and receive e-mail from anyone in the world.

Below is a photo of an actual attendee using the system. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain--I mean in the background. Also, notice the card swipe thing in front of the monitor. Cool, huh?

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Here's a diagram of how the Novell Connecting Points was set up. Following the diagram is a description of the components.

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The Hardware
Server Hardware
Fifty-two Compaq Proliant 6000 servers, connected to the network via Bay Networks' 100-base T switches.

If you visited the Network Operating Center, you saw 52 servers running the Novell Connecting Points. You might have wondered if 52 servers were a little excessive. Well, yes and no. The core Novell Connecting Points network ran on seven domain servers: one primary administrative server and six user domain servers with 45,000 users per server. The remaining servers provided fault-tolerance, backup, gateways, remote processes, dial-in authentication, and administrative support--which in a normal network would have been consolidated onto the core server set. A mixture of intraNetWare and Windows NT platforms was used. Why NT? Because we can. Really. We wanted to show the world that we could make this thing work in a real-world mixed environment. Here's how the messaging domain architecture was set up:Picture

?  Post office data was distributed across two primary domains and six user domains.
?  One primary domain contained all users. Another primary domain was used for messaging distribution.
? Each user domain server contained six post offices, providing collaborative/messaging service to a total of 45,000 users. Each post office contained 7,500 users.
?  GroupWise post office data was distributed across three volumes on each of the six user domain servers.
?  During the planning stage, scalability testing was done for:
   36 post offices x 7,500 users = 270,000 users
   and
   36 post offices x 8,500 users = 306,000 users

Clients
Approximately 300 Compaq DeskPro 4000, 5200, 6000, and 6200 machines were connected to the network via Bay Networks' 10-base T switches. Again, these 300 machines were located in four different areas, two locations in the LVCC and two locations in the Sands Convention Center.

The two locations in the LVCC were connected via an ATM 155M IP/IPX backbone. The LVCC was connected to the Sands Convention Center via a DS3 IP 45-megabit line. Novell BorderManager provided secure access between the two convention centers. In addition, Novell RADIUS gateways and access servers provided remote dial-up connectivity from hotels rooms and anywhere else for that matter. POP, SMTP, and Java-enabled GroupWise WebAccess gateways were used.

The Software
As mentioned, this was live. Not a simulation. Not a canned demo. You can go to some other company's booth to see that kind of thing. What's more, the entire solution was built with shipping products. Off-the-shelf products. Novell Connecting Points is unprecedented networking and messaging, and only Novell can do it with products you can buy today. It's our competition's dream for the future, and we've got it here, now. Here's a list of the software used and links for you to find out more information.
Novell GroupWise WebAccess 5.2
At past shows, we've offered both the network version and the WebAccess versions of GroupWise. At COMDEX, we wanted users to see the power and simplicity of GroupWise WebAccess. GroupWise WebAccess let attendees send and retrieve e-mail, schedule appointments with each other, keep track of their COMDEX calendars, and find other attendees easily through the GroupWise Address Book. For more info about Novell GroupWise WebAccess visit www.novell.com/groupwise.
Novell BorderManager
In a nutshell, Novell BorderManager brings accountability to the Internet. As great as the Internet is, it lacks the manageability, security, and performance necessary for true business-critical networking. Who do you call when performance is slow? Who ensures security? Who manages the Internet? Novell BorderManager, the industry's first integrated family of directory-based network services, manages, secures, and accelerates user access to the Internet both for sending and retrieving e-mail, as well as for surfing the Web. For the Novell Connecting Points, BorderManager provided blazing fast Internet connections and amazing caching of web sites. How well did BorderManager perform? How's 1,500,000 http server requests and transmitting more than six gigabytes of data per day? For more info about Novell BorderManager, visit www.novell.com/bordermanager.
Novell intraNetWare
Novell intraNetWare, Novell's comprehensive platform for a modern, full-service intranet, provided performance and advanced administration to ensure the massive network ran smoothly, with no down time. Which was no small task. Novell intraNetWare provides both IP and IPX access to intranet resources such as web servers, FTP servers, and WAN connections to the Internet.
Novell ManageWise
Novell ManageWise, a suite of management services, helped monitor and control the heterogeneous networks, servers, and desktops at the Novell Connecting Points. For more info about Novell ManageWise, visit www.novell.com/products/managewise.
Novell Directory Services
Novell Directory Services (NDS) gave the Novell Connecting Points administrators a single point of access for administering the network and adding user accounts. NDS provides a proven, scalable architecture for maintaining information on millions of objects within a single directory tree. For more info about Novell Directory Services, visit www.novell.com/products/edirectory.
Novell Application Launcher
Novell Application Launcher (NAL) let administrators distribute software without visiting each PC and server on the network. NAL forced simplified, standard desktops for the Novell Connecting Points computers. Conference attendees were able to launch applications directly from the NAL window. Because we wanted to prevent hackers from, well, hacking the system, we were able to lock down the desktop to allow access to select applications (GroupWise WebAccess, Corel WordPerfect, Netscape Navigator, and a Telnet application). Using the NAL shell, administrators were able to prevent access to the Network Neighborhood, the Start menu, My Computer, and the DOS prompt. Was this security necessary? With 250,000 computer-savvy users, there was bound to be two or three dozen hackers trying to bring down the system--I think I met all of them during the course of the show.
RADIUS Services for NDS
RADIUS Services is a server-based interface between NDS and network access servers running the industry-standard RADIUS protocol. Novell RADIUS gateways and access servers provided remote dial-up connectivity to the network from attendees' hotel rooms.

How Did Novell Pull This Off?
Now you may be saying to yourself, "Enough already. I get it. You built a cool network." If you are saying that, you clearly don't get the enormity of what's happened here. No trade show had ever provided a messaging system for 250,000 users. Before COMDEX, the biggest network ever built was for a show with 100,000 users (also built by Novell). Increasing that by 150 percent was a Herculean task.

Less than two months before the show, a team of Novell engineers said good-bye to their families, took vows of monkhood, and began planning the system. Engineers with different experience and expertise met to plan the overall structure--from the hardware layer to the software configuration. One month before COMDEX, the Novell Connecting Points team began building portions of the network in a lab environment.

With only four days to set up, and with COMDEX lasting only five days, there was no room for error. As one team member put it, "We don't get a second chance--things have to work." Thus, reliable hardware and software and fault-tolerance became critical. Fault-tolerance, from backups to redundant hardware (hard disks, network cards, and cables) was carefully planned. In fact, redundant cabling was used to link everything together--just in case a forklift or one of our competitors with a Swiss Army knife cut through the front-line cabling.

A huge area of concern was getting the attendees into the system fast enough. Only about 40 percent of the 250,000 attendees pre-register; the remainder register on-site. All of these attendees' information had to be imported quickly. A special import utility was written to extract attendees' information from the registration database and to put the information directly into the NDS tree structure. Also, at every Novell Connecting Points area, a special administration machine was set up. This administration machine, equipped with a swipe card reader, let workers swipe the badges of recent registerees to import their information into the system. Once the attendees' badges were swiped, their GroupWise account was ready within a minute and a half. Try that at home.

My COMDEX Diary
Okay, it's not really my diary. You don't want to know how many buffets I ate at (six) or how many Elvis impersonators I saw (18). This is how I used the Novell Connecting Points as well as how I saw attendees using the system.

I didn't know my temporary e-mail address before I got to the show, so the first thing I did was send an e-mail message to my personal e-mail account at home and to gwmag@novell.com. That way my family and co-workers could get in touch with me. One side benefit: my temporary address was now stored in their Frequent Contacts Address Book, making it easy for them to send me stuff.

I also wanted a way to read any messages that people sent to me at work. Because we use my computer at work to build and maintain Cool Solutions, some of my co-workers know my login password (I'm fully insured). However, with the GroupWise Proxy feature, Doug (whom I've granted full Proxy rights to) created a rule that automatically forwarded everything from work to my temporary COMDEX Mailbox.

As I mentioned, I helped staff the various Novell Connecting Points areas so I was always near a computer. Because the world, and work, didn't stop just because I was away, Doug and I collaborated on several Tips of the Week. We sent ideas and drafts of tips back and forth. As a matter of fact, work went on just like normal except we didn't walk down to the cafeteria each morning to get a 64-ounce Diet Coke (with just a splash of Diet Dr Pepper) like we do on-site.

As an aside, GroupWise made it easy to keep appointments and complete tasks as I was at COMDEX. Before I left for Las Vegas, I entered my COMDEX work schedule into GroupWise as appointments. Using a synchronization utility (Puma's Intellisync) I was able to transfer my appointments, notes, and tasks to my USRobotics Palm Pilot. Look for an upcoming feature article on GroupWise and hand-held electronic organizers.

Speaking of Palm Pilots, after a COMDEX attendee lost his Palm Pilot, the finder of the Palm Pilot looked up the owner's name in the GroupWise Address Book. The two attendees arranged a meeting, using a GroupWise appointment, and the owner was reunited with his Palm Pilot. I love happy endings.

How did actual COMDEX attendees use the Novell Connecting Points? The editor of a German computer magazine browsed the Web to download transcripts of each COMDEX keynote address, including the speech by Eric Schmidt, Novell CEO. One Utah-based newspaper reporter corresponded with her editor and even submitted her daily stories using GroupWise. I saw many users keeping track of their stock portfolios. I spoke with many users who had co-workers set up rules to forward messages from work to the show. People kept in touch with each other, people scheduled meetings, and people kept up to date with late-breaking show information (in the form of e-mail messages sent by our system administrators). Five lucky attendees won Compaq laptop computers (not me) and one extremely lucky attendee drove home in a Porsche Boxter (also not me), all courtesy of Novell. I even spoke to many Cool Solutions readers. Thanks for your kind comments.

What This Means to You
Even if you didn't attend COMDEX and take part in the history of the world's largest production network, the experience will benefit you--in the form of a better GroupWise. GroupWise, and other Novell products, were put to the test in one of the most demanding situations imaginable.

Since we began building the first Novell Connecting Points in 1993, valuable feedback has been fed to product developers. Features have been added to GroupWise and software developer toolkits based on Novell Connecting Points experience. The Novell Application Launcher was developed to fill a need at trade shows. Now it's a product that helps companies and universities update software and maintain consistent desktops. The GroupWise Java gateway was tested extensively at Novell Connecting Points and was brought to market much faster than it would have been otherwise. Many COMDEX Fall '97 attendee suggestions have already been forwarded to marketing and development teams.

The Novell Connecting Points showed the world that Novell products can provide performance, reliability, security, and scalability in any environment, regardless of time and demand pressures. If we can design and implement a messaging system of this size in less than two months, imagine what you can do with GroupWise and other Novell products with a little more time and fewer users to worry about.

           


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