Looking back on InteropITX 2017 – the good, the bad, and the future

My fifth Interop conference is in the books now. Let’s take a look back and see how it turned out, and where I think it will go next year. See disclosures at the end if you’re into that sort of thing.

Ch-ch-ch-changes…

The event scaled down this year, moving down the strip to the MGM Grand Conference Center after several years at Mandalay Bay. With the introduction of a 30-member advisory board from industry and community to support the content tracks, Interop moved toward a stronger content focus than I’d perceived in past events.

The metrics provided by Meghan Reilly (Interop general manager) and Susan Fogarty (head of content) showed some interesting dynamics in this year’s attendance.

The most represented companies had 6-7 attendees each, as I recall from the opening callouts, with an average of about 2 people per company. More than half of the attendees were experiencing Interop for the first time, and nearly two thirds were management as opposed to practitioners.

The focus on IT leadership, from the keynotes to the leadership and professional development track for sessions, was definitely front and center.

How about that content?

Keynotes brought some of the big names and interesting stories to InteropITX. There wasn’t always a direct correlation, but there was some interesting context to be experienced, from Cisco’s Susie Wee talking about code and programmability in an application world (and getting the audience to do live API calls from their phones), to Kevin Mandia of Fireeye talking about real world security postures and threat landscapes. Andrew McAfee brought the acronym of the year to the stage, noting that often the decisions in companies are not made by the right person, but the HiPPOs — Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.

With five active tracks, there was content for everyone in the breakouts this year as well. Some tracks will need larger rooms next year (like the Packet Pushers Future Of Networking, which seemed to demand software-defined seating when I tried to get in) and others may need some heavier recruiting.

Attendees can access the presentations they missed (check your Interop emails), and some presentations may have been posted separately by the presenters (i.e. to Slideshare or their own web properties) for general access. Alas, or perhaps luckily, the sessions were not recorded, so if you haven’t heard Stephen Foskett’s storage joke, you’ll have to find him in person to experience it.

Panic at the Expo?

But the traditional draw of Interop, its expo floor (now called the Business Hall), was still noteworthy. With over a hundred exhibitors, from large IT organizations like VMware to startups and niche suppliers, you could see almost anything there (except wireless technology, as @wirelessnerd will tell you about here). American Express OPEN was even there again as well, and while they couldn’t help with fixing Amex’s limited retort to Chase Sapphire Reserve (read more about that on rsts11travel if you like), they were there to help business owners get charge card applications and swag processed.

The mega-theatre booths of past years were gone, and this year’s largest booths were 30×30 for VMware and Cylance among others.

Some of the big infrastructure names were scaled way back (like Cisco, with a 10×10 along with a Viptela 10×10 and a Meraki presence at the NBASET Alliance booth) or absent (like Dell, whose only presence was in an OEM appliance reference, and HPE, who seem to have been completely absent).

These two noteworthy changes to the expo scene were probably good for the ecosystem as a whole, with a caveat. With a more leveled playing field in terms of scale and scope, a wider range of exhibitors were able to get noticed, and it seemed that the booth theatre model and the predatory scanner tactics were mostly sidelined in favor of paying attention to people who were genuinely interested.

The caveat, and a definite downside to the loss of the big names, was that Interop was one of the last shows that gave you a chance to see what the “Monsters of IT Infrastructure” were doing, side by side, in a relatively neutral environment. For this year at least, VMworld is probably as close as you will get to the big picture.

Some of this may have to do with the conference ecosystem itself; Dell EMC World was the previous week in Las Vegas, with HPE Discover the first full week of June and Cisco Live US the last full week of June. These events often occupy speakers and exhibition staffs for weeks if not months beforehand, and the big players also had events like Strata Hadoop World in London to cope with as well. (See Stephen Foskett’s Enterprise IT Calendar for a sense of the schedule.)

Will the “Monsters of IT” come back next year?

I’d like to see them return, as fresh interest and opportunity is a good way to sustain growth, but I have a feeling that focusing on their owned-and-operated events and away from the few (one?) remaining general IT infrastructure event is likely to continue. They may just field speakers for the content tracks and assume that people will come to them anyway.

Meanwhile,  smaller players will continue to grow. While they appear to just be nipping at the heels of the big players, they’re building a base and a reputation in the community, and they don’t need to beat the Cisco/Dell/HPE scale vendors to succeed. So maybe everyone wins.

But what about InteropNet?

The earliest memory I have of Interop, from my 2013 visit, was finding a pair of Nortel Passport (nee Avaya ERS) 8600 routing switches in the InteropNet network. InteropNet has been a demonstration platform that brought together a wide range of vendors including routing and switching, wireless, and software layers (monitoring and management in particular), and it was noticeably absent this year as well.

Part of this may be due to the smaller size of the Business Hall, but part is also due to the cost (time and money at least) of setting up and operating the multivendor environment. The absence of most of the enterprise network hardware vendors may also have played into it, although I don’t know if that was a cause or an effect. As fascinating as Extremo the Monkey was, I don’t think an all-Extreme Networks InteropNet would have really demonstrated interoperability that well.

I didn’t talk to any of the network vendors who weren’t there, but some of the software layer vendors were unabashedly disappointed by the loss of InteropNet. It’s one thing to show a video recording or demo over VPN back to a lab somewhere, but it’s a much more convincing story to show how your product or service would react to a real world environment that your prospective customer is a part of, at that moment.

There were a number of OEM/ODM type network (and server) manufacturers, as well as software-defined networking companies like Cumulus and 128 Networks, but I think at least one big name would have to be there to make InteropNet work. Two or three would make it even better.

One interesting thought to make InteropNet more interesting and practical would be for a hardware refurbisher or reseller to bring in gear from the big names and set it up. Whether it’s ServerMonkey or another vendor of that class, or even a broad spectrum integrator like Redapt, it would be a good way to show a less-than-bleeding-edge production-grade environment that might appeal more to the half of the attendees whose companies are smaller than 1000 people. It would be a great opportunity for companies like that to showcase their consulting and services offerings as well.

Looking into the rsts11 crystal ball…

I don’t remember any mention of venue for next year, but I would guess some rooms and locations would be tweaked to optimize MGM Grand for InteropITX 2018. It’s very convenient for economical rooms and minimal leaving-the-hotel-complex requirements for attendees.

The new tracks structure worked, for the most part, although I expect adjustment and evolution in the content. Don’t be surprised if more hands-on sessions come around. Even though wireless tech was in short supply in the Business Hall, it was very popular in the breakouts.

I’m not expecting the Monsters of IT to have a resurgence in 2018, although it might be a good thing if they did. More security, management and automation, and some surprising new startups, are more likely to find their way into the Business Hall.

Where do we go from here?

I was asked at Interop for suggestions on how to make InteropNet more practical next year. I had some ideas above, but I could use some help. Do you feel that it was an unfortunate omission, or were you more inclined toward “I wouldn’t say I was missing it, Bob” ??

We’ll have some more coverage in the next couple of weeks, including another update on NBase-T network technology (which made a much more substantial showing in terms of available-to-buy-today offerings this year), so stay tuned to our “interop” tag for the latest.

And of course, while it’s too early for me to apply for media credentials, it’s not too early to start thinking about InteropITX 2018.

Registration isn’t quite ready yet, but you can sign up to be notified (and get updates on submitting to present next year as well!). Click above or visit interop.com to join the notification list today!

Disclosure: I attend InteropITX as independent media, unrelated to and unaffiliated with my day job. Neither UBM/InteropITX nor any vendor covered have influence over or responsibility for any of my coverage.

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Internet on the Road, part 2 – how to optimize your travel connectivity

rsts11 note: This is the second of a two-part series featuring mobile internet routers. The first part is posted over on rsts11travel.com, as it is a bit milder technology. The second part appears on #rsts11 since it’s a bit more POHO than random travel, and will be cross-promoted on the travel side. 

When you travel, you probably have a number of devices that demand connectivity.

Many venues limit your allowed devices, and maybe you don’t want your devices out on the open network. Additionally, you may want to use streaming devices or shared storage in your room, and that may not work with typical public network setups. Last time we looked at some battery powered routers with charging functions and other network features.

Today on rsts11 we’ll look at some choices for sharing a wired connection as well as a cellular modem. We’ll briefly revisit the Hootoo and Ravpower routers from part 1, and then dive into Meraki, Peplink, and Cradlepoint devices for the higher-power user.  Continue reading

Internet on the Road part 1 – A crossover with #rsts11travel

rsts11 note: This is the first of a two-part series started on #rsts11travel, featuring mobile internet routers. The second part will appear here on #rsts11 since it’s a bit more POHO than random travel, and will be cross-promoted on the travel side. 

When you travel, you probably have a number of devices that demand connectivity. However, a lot of venues limit your allowed devices, and maybe you don’t want your devices out on the open network. Additionally, you may want to use streaming devices or shared storage in your room, and that may not work with typical public network setups.

Today on rsts11travel we’ll look at a couple of options for aggregating, optimizing, and even protecting your connectivity on a public hotspot, hotel network, or even on your own cellular connection.

There are three schemes we’ll consider in this series.

  1. Connecting multiple devices to wifi
  2. Connecting multiple devices to a wired network
  3. Connecting multiple devices through a mobile hotspot/cellular modem

A caveat up front with regard to security and obfuscation: Not all of these options offer the same level of security for your devices, and most will not limit visibility of your connectivity as far as the facility staff, the ISP, or others on your network is concerned. Nothing in this series should be taken as replacing your OS and application updates, antivirus and anti-malware/anti-spyware software, and of course realization that security is subjective.

Read more at rsts11travel.com

When speeds and feeds really matter – NBase-T and the Modern Office part 1

Welcome back to rsts11. With the conference season on pause for a bit, we’ll be catching up on some coverage from last fall. Look for fresh homelab posts, a couple of device reviews, and more. The who-I-work-for disclosure is at the end of the post. The second part of this topic is at Rolling Your Own NBase-T Network.

What is NBase-T and Why Do I Care?

Before I get into my story, let’s cover a couple of the basics.

NBase-T is a technology standard that allows faster-than-gigabit but not-necessarily-10-gigabit connectivity over Cat5e or Cat6 cabling. The NBase-T Alliance website says “close to 100%” of enterprises run Cat5e or Cat6 as their cabling plant. So with this technology, many to most enterprises can grow beyond Gigabit Ethernet at typical building cable run distances without upgrading to Cat6A. Continue reading

I’ve been called certifiable before – a sysadmin’s developing thoughts on certification

I’ve been a system administrator in some form or another since, I suppose, Summer 1988 when I provided ad hoc support for the RSTS/11 system at my college. I made a few bucks doing it as a lab assistant for two years, but I was probably too much of a proto-BOFH to stay on the payroll. I still fielded more questions than most of the lab assistants, and it prepared me moderately well for the following 25 years of user, system, and platform support.

One thing I’ve rarely ever done is get formally trained, or even less often, certified in a technology. I was three classes short of a computer science undergrad major just for fun, which should tell you I’m certifiable (didn’t take RPG, COBOL, or Calculus, but I did a bit of recreational Discrete Mathematics and two doses of Machine Structures).

Around the turn of the century, I took the Legato Certified Administrator (Data Protection) class and exam, and got certified on a technology I’d been deploying and managing for a few years at the time. In 2010 I took the Cloudera Hadoop Administrator course. I almost passed the certification exam then, but didn’t have time to go back and retake it before the retake offer expired. And that’s the extent of my formal training to date.

So what’s changed now?

Having been welcomed into the communities around Cisco’s datacenter technology and VMware’s virtualization platforms, I’m feeling an unnatural desire to work toward certifications in both of those areas. I have the 200-120 box set for CCNA Routing & Switching, although I’ve been leaning toward the datacenter path. I’m still trying to figure out what path to take with VMware, but we’ll have to see.

I was reading the Cisco Learning Network post “6 Reasons Employers Value Cisco Certifications” and it made me think about my aversion to certification over the last few years. So what’s wrong with certification, and what might be right about it?

What could possibly go wrong?

For one, some people collect certifications the way I collect old computers and soho routers. The cert may be representative of being able to complete a vendor’s exam, but may not reflect feet-on-the-ground (or hands-on-the-keyboard) skills, much less big picture architectural thinking. This was common when we were searching for a full year for a network admin at one job a few years back. No matter how many network certs you have, if you can’t at least give a shot to explaining subnetting, you’re probably not ready for the real world.

Another issue is that most certifications are vendor-specific, and may impart an undue bias toward that vendor over others. I’d like to think this isn’t the case, and a truly good network administrator/architect would know a broad swath of the market and be able to fit technology to an identified and triaged problem/business need, rather than trying to squeeze the business need into a given technology.

But what’s right?

For one, there are different skill levels and foci, and tiered/niched certifications can give a hint as to what level someone is. If I come in to an interview with a CCNA R&S, for example, I probably won’t be asked to provide in-depth explanations of SS7 or 802.11ac. There will always be bad interviewers, like the guy a few years ago who wanted me to explain in depth how BGP worked, after I had said twice that I wasn’t a network engineer and had only worked on LANs. So this isn’t foolproof on either end.

More important to me, now that I’m thinking about the process, is that pursuing a certification gives you a roadmap to study and prepare, and a somewhat finite goal to achieve. I never learned Perl because I didn’t really have a scope or a fixed goal. Making a personal goal to “learn me some networking,” alas, probably won’t get me anywhere.

Having a goal to, say, “take the CCNA DC exam at Cisco Live in May” gives me a framework and a finite goal. I can set aside time every week, study some of the Cisco Learning Network materials, watch some Pluralsight programs with Chris Wahl, and have a fixed time frame for preparation for the exam.

So where do we go from here?

For one, I think that box set of the 200-120 CCNA R&S library will probably sit in the closet for a few more months. It was on sale with an extra coupon at Barnes and Noble last summer, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

I will be plotting out my Cisco Certification Written Exam at Cisco Live in May, as hinted above. I blew off the free exam last year, which was probably good considering I’d had Tech Field Day 9 the week before (Tech Field Day events are great for scrambling the brain, and the 90-100F temperatures were leaning toward poaching my brain along with it).

I’m going to get more involved with Cisco Learning Network, as I’m sure Matt Saunders won’t let me slip on this. Hopefully some of my fellow Cisco Champions will cheer, jeer, prod, or otherwise support me on the journey as well.

And I’ll be sure to share my adventure with you fine readers… feel free to poke at me here if you have suggestions or haven’t heard from me on the certification path in a while.

Do share any certification feedback, suggestions for me, or warnings for other readers… in the comments below.