Life Behind the Black Curtain: What it takes to setup a large tradeshow network.
I spend a lot of time behind curtains. That’s not really out of choice as it’s the nature of where they stick you when you’re running the network at a large tradeshow. We call it the Network Operations Center – NOC if you want to sound cool – but most people just know it as the guys to complain to when your computer doesn’t work at a show. It’s often a thankless gig and it can be extremely stressful at times, but setting up a temporary network that might live for less than a week to deliver fast wired and wireless access to thousands of people in a completely foreign environment is an exciting challenge. Here’s how it happens.
Planning – site survey, conference calls
We typically start planning a tradeshow network 2-3 months in advance with a small team of engineers. Larger or more complicated networks like those at CiscoLive, can take many more months and involve input from multiple groups. These are the days of conference calls with the show planners to nail down what their requirements will be and the conference location to find out what’s available in place. For new locations we sometimes do a site-survey which is basically just a walk through with the people that run the hotel or convention center. This face-to-face and hands-on view of the space helps greatly with the planning although there isn’t always time or budget to actually go there ahead of time.
The planning stage is where experience helps out the most since the biggest difference between a tradeshow network and a traditional network is how temporary it is. What that really means to us building the network is that the requirements for the network are constantly in flux. The show requirements at T-minus 6 months, T-minus 3 months and then 2 days before the event can vary dramatically. Connections and wireless coverage might be required in completely new areas. After doing this a few times you start to predict how the requirements might change over time and include enough contingencies in your network design – including spare equipment – to cover anything that might pop up at the last minute. For example, I always plan for a few spare layer 3 switches and access points. Speare equipment can act like network duct tape to fix just about any problem you encounter.
A good investment in time spent staging the network ahead of time can pay off greatly once you get on-site. Ideally I like to have the network entirely configured and ready to drop into place at this point with everything I can control already decided. Software is upgraded, release notes checked, equipment lists and contingency plans for failed equipment or changing plans ready to go. I like to be one-hundred percent confident in the network before shipping it out leaving the time on-site for layer 1. Any configuration or changes to the network that occur on-site are due to changes in the show plan after this point. There are always last minute changes in room layout, booth changes or a last minute streaming video from a keynote.
With the shows I work on we typically plan to stage the network 2-4 weeks before the show depending on shipping schedule. Too early and you might miss changes to the show plan. Too late and you’ll be cutting yourself short on prep time. This is the best time to get to know your network inside and out. You can tweak your addressing, VLANs or wireless setup now with plenty of time and without affecting any users. It’s a good chance to find the latest client load-balancing feature in your wireless LAN controller or a new IPSLA with Embedded Event Manager trick that can make your life running the network easier.
There’s no greater relief than arriving on-site to find all your equipment arrived on time with nothing damaged. With international shows I’ve been known to pack enough small routers, switches and cables in my luggage to get the show staff online just in case the main equipment cases are delayed a few days in customs. Once it does arrive to separate everything into piles based on what area of the show they’re headed to including a pile for spares. You never know what some shipper has decided to “test on their own network” from your cases en route. It’s not uncommon to see laptops missing from international shipments, but I’ve seen access points, routers and switches go missing too. This is another place where overbuilding the network and including spares can save your tail under a tight deadline.
If I’ve done my job in staging I can typically build out the core infrastructure of a tradeshow network for one to three thousand attendees in less than a day. Most of that is walking around the equipment closets – IDFs or Intermediate Distribution Frame if you want to sound cool – with the local staff getting the equipment in place and cabled into the building wiring. With proper planning the entire network should power on exactly the same way it was left after staging.
Of course, we don’t start building the network the day before the event. We’re usually the first people to arrive at least a day before the show staff so we can get a portion of the network up for them. Depending on the show that can be 3-5 days before the first attendee checks in. If the final show plan looks like the plan we staged a network for, then we’re almost done with the network by now. In fifteen years I’ve never seen that happen. There are always last minute changes that range from moving a connection from one room to another all the way up to providing last-minute wireless coverage for up to one thousand attendees in a general session so they can send Tweets to the presenter. Plans always change but spending time in staging – and plenty of spare equipment – saves the day.
At this point it’s not uncommon to find bad cabling or even cables that no one really knows where they connect to. You’d be surprised at the abuse convention center cabling takes and how little the local technical staff often understands where it goes or what it does. They often have 2-3 groups they have to support every week and much of the time their primary job is audio-video support and not running a network. This is where I’ll shamelessly plug another company and a couple of their products I always keep in my tool bag. I carry an IntelliTone Pro Toner from Fluke Networks around with me at every show. More than any other piece of equipment, if my toner breaks life sucks. With it I can find any cable anywhere and verify that all the wires are actually connected in it. Once layer 1 of the network is up I rely on the LinkRunner Pro for more complex problems. It can show me the CDP (Cisco Discovery Protocol) information to show me exactly which switch and port I’m connected to. It also helps find cabling faults and cable lengths in a nice pocket size device. Fluke and other companies make more thorough and expensive tools, but these little ones are the guys I use at every single show.
It’s a massive effort to plan, stage and build a large temporary network for a show or conference. However, that’s only part of the job. Every network works great before it encounters users. In the next post I’ll talk about what happens when exhibitors and attendees start showing up with their own expectations, changes, devices and applications.