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Reality Check
January 2004

Robert Vahid Hashemian The Network Behind The Event


The Long Beach Internet Telephony� Conference and EXPO in October 2003 was a successful show in more ways than one. The event was met with much enthusiasm from the exhibitors as well as the attendees who packed into the Exhibit Hall hungry to learn about the newest VoIP technologies. For our team, working behind the scenes, it was a great learning experience in what it takes to assemble a network on the show floor with connectivity to the Internet that can handle the traffic generated from the exhibitors showcasing their products as well as Wi-Fi connected attendees surfing the Web and checking e-mail.

Well, we came away from that show with a few lessons learned. For one thing, southern California has a more pleasant climate than Connecticut (although admittedly I don�t mind the opportunity to ice skate on the pond across from my house in winter). I also learned that English seems to be a second language in the area (time to start watching Spanish channels). But humor aside, there were a number of lessons learned setting up the network at the event.

When it comes to provisioning Internet connection for a trade show, there are a multitude of issues to consider. These range from the selection of the ISP based on reputation and price to hooking up individual nodes to the network and having them operating in short order. The pace of operation in a trade show is much more demanding than that in the office. Deadlines are tighter, resources are more restricted, and not the least, prices are inflated. One of the main challenges of getting an Internet connection installed is finding an ISP that would undertake that task. We needed -- at a minimum -- a full capacity T1 line. Anything short of that (such as Cable or DSL) would have been unable to deliver the quality and the upload/download bandwidth that the users would expect. Here are the steps we took to make the network infrastructure at Internet Telephony Conference & EXPO a success.

� Months prior to the show, we contacted multiple ISPs to gauge availability and pricing for a T1 circuit. Reality came crashing down when we actually couldn�t find anyone willing to supply the circuit. Here is the reason why: When it comes to business installations, most ISPs like long contracts of one- to three-year terms. This guarantees a stream of revenue for a fixed period of time resulting in a high profit margin for them. As most locations in the ISPs� territories are already wired and much of their operations are automated, ISPs can quickly recoup the setup and configuration cost of a circuit and the remaining monthly payments from the customers are mainly profit. Our requirements were obviously for a duration of a week and hence the reluctance of the ISPs to work with us. The only ISP that finally agreed to our terms was the local Telco whose terms included both setup and tear-down charges as well as a full month�s subscription. But in the end, the Hotel, where the event was held, approached us with a fair proposal and we had a deal.

� Many hotels and convention centers are already wired to the Internet and they have discovered a lucrative business model by reselling their connections to event organizers. This may sound like a win/win situation but in many cases it is far from it. Many of these locations have inflated pricing, limited bandwidth, limited IP addresses, and limited access ports. To make matters worse, many have overzealous firewalls with login requirements and timeouts that slow down the response times and inhibit efficient network usage. Considering these issues, it was with some trepidation that we started to plan out our network with the hotel staff. We were assured that our concerns with regards to reliability and efficiency will be addressed.

� Arriving onsite, a few days prior to the opening of the event, we began crimping and laying down network cables while the Exhibit Hall came to life at dizzying speed. The connection to the Internet was established flawlessly and the network was ready to serve.

A few exhibitors expressed concern that a T1 bandwidth may be too inadequate to satisfy the traffic generated by all the users. Naturally we were concerned with the same issue and that is why we had the network under tight scrutiny for any signs of stress. And such signs became apparent in one instance.

In one instance, the network suddenly and without warning slowed to a crawl. Using our tools we were able to quickly identify the source of the problem. Apparently a user was flooding one of the Wi-Fi hubs that was set up at a distant location thereby causing the network degradation. Once the node was removed from the network, everything was back to normal.

Our biggest fear was the latest string of exploits gripping Microsoft products. It would take one unpatched (or worse, pre-infected) node to bring down the whole network. During the February Internet Telephony Conference & EXPO in Miami we were indeed stung with such problem. Our investigation determined the cause of a severe network packet loss to be the much feared SQL Server worm, known as the Slammer. One of the exhibitors had a server with an unpatched version of SQL Server. Overnight the server had been compromised by the Slammer worm and proceeded to flood the network. Fortunately we identified and neutralized the node (by applying the appropriate patch) before many of the participants even had woken up.

This time around we were delighted that not a single node was compromised. The network performed admirably and received high marks on its ability to support many VoIP calls as well as other activities without a problem. We also knew that the laws of statistical distribution would be on our side. In other words not all users required the available bandwidth simultaneously.

One item that is missing in our arsenal is a bandwidth shaper. Unfortunately bandwidth shaping is not exact science and it is best applied to protocols rather than individual nodes. It also requires a fair amount of computing muscle as it involves intense calculations. We decided that our resources are best spent identifying and eliminating rogue nodes than to allocate discrete bandwidths to certain protocols. In the end we would have still needed to monitor the network for stress anyhow. Nevertheless, if you have experience with bandwidth shaping, I would love to receive your feedback. I am especially looking for cost-effective, easily configurable shapers that can limit bandwidth per node (IP address).

The next INTERNET TELEPHONY Conference & EXPO is happening from February 11-13, 2004 in Miami, FL. For more information, visit the Web site.

Robert Vahid Hashemian provides us with a healthy dose of reality every other month in his Reality Check column. Robert is Webmaster for TMCnet.com -- The Authority on CRM, VoIP, Communications, Call Centers, Teleservices, Wi-Fi and Biometrics. He is also the author of the recently published Financial Markets For The Rest Of Us. He can be reached at [email protected].

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