I’m at Interop this week talking all things networking with a great group of people. There are quite a few members of the community here presenting, listening and discussing. There’s a great exchange of ideas flowing back and forth. Yet one thing I keep hearing in quiet corners of the room is a hushed discussion of the continued viability of Interop as a conference. Is it time to write the Interop obituary?
Only Mostly Dead
Some of the arguments are as old as tech itself. People claim that getting vendors to interoperate today is an afterthought thanks to protocols like OSPF. All of the important bits in a network are standardized now. Use of APIs and other open technologies are driving vendors to play nice with each other. The need to show up in a faraway place and do the work has long passed.
There’s also the discussion around the bigger conferences out in the world. Vendor conferences like Cisco Live and VMworld draw tens of thousands. New product announcements are dropping left and right during these events. People also want to fracture into tool-specific events like OpenStack Summit or DockerCon. Or the various analyst events or company days that happen every month. Why have a conference like Interop when others do it bigger?
Lastly, there’s the argument that the idea of an expo floor is long gone. Why should we get a booth on the show floor to show off our solution? Why not just approach people directly? Why spend money to be there like everyone else. Companies that stand out get noticed. Companies that leverage social media and SEO get the business. Not companies that buy space on a floor somewhere.
Let’s jump on these one at a time.
First, claiming that all vendors play nice today thanks to standard protocols is misguided at best and downright silly at worst. Just because OSPF is standard doesn’t mean that people aren’t going to bend it to their own needs. Remember totally stubby areas? Those were very Cisco-specific for a long time. And throwing APIs into the discussion muddies the waters even further. Just because you have an API attached to your software doesn’t mean you can interoperate. How well is your API documented? Do I need to buy SDK access to get into it? Is my code portable? Do you do something silly like not supporting Python but loving things like Java and Perl?
Interoperability is a problem that hasn’t been solved completely. Even if everything works on paper and in Powerpoint slides, there’s still an acid test when you plug it all in for real and make it work. That moment of relief when two different vendor’s devices come up with the same protocols and everything talks is a magical time. You can’t replicate that in documentation. There’s still a huge need to have companies show up and physically prove that things work in a neutral setting versus a heavily slanted bakeoff lab somewhere.
Secondly, let’s look at those other conferences. Sure, Cisco Live has 20,000 people. That all want to talk about Cisco. There isn’t a whole lot of room for Juniper, Brocade, or HPE to be there. Differing opinions aren’t welcome. At best they are discussed in hushed tones in the corners of the room (sound familiar?). Mindshare is important, but so are honest discussions. As for smaller conferences focused on specific tools like OpenStack Summit, you quickly see the limits of things when you start talking to attendees about other things like pieces of the stack not addressed by the solution. There’s importance in being able to talk about all the parts without being overly myopic on one part.
The other piece of the other conferences refers back to a conversation that happened on Twitter last month about community content in large vendor conferences. There was talk from a number of people about how vendor conferences freeze out community content because people pay big bucks to come here a Technical Marketing Engineer read slides about configuring a feature. It’s a far cry from the deep discussion and analysis that you get in other places. How do you work around bugs in code? What happens when a feature is missing? Communities solve problems. Big conferences do a bad job of getting community involvement outside of expo floor crawls and keynotes. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t need the amazing work of vBrownBag and Security BSides. Community matters to people.
Thirdly, the expo floor discussion. I’ll admit that I find expo floors to be personally challenging, but to eschew them in favor of a completely social strategy or relying on SEO to pop up on people’s radar is a recipe for disaster. Being able to physically talk to a person is still a valuable part of the process. How do you feel about their approach? Are they happy with the technology? Does it work in the physical demo? Do you get the sense that they are pushing too hard or trying to close you on a sale without giving you what you need. That’s an experience you don’t get via email or DM on Twitter. Whether or not my personal feelings matter, the truth is that the expo does still matter.
I’m biased. I’ve loved Interop for a number of years even before I got involved in the programming of it. The idea that people show up to prove definitively that their stuff works with all the other stuff is a gut check like no other. In the last couple of years the planners of the conference have worked hard to make sure that the programming has reflected the kinds of things that people need to be aware of on the horizon and what they need to be learning. Less focus on vendor sales pitches and more on independent content. Lean and mean and ready to fight the rest of the conference world to prove that content is still king.
As long as I’m involved, I can promise that any rumors of Interop’s impending death with stay just that – talk and rumor. There’s still a lot of life left in this grand event to make it matter to people that should matter.