Resource Contention In IT – Time Is Never Enough

I’m at Future:NET this week and there’s a lot of talk about the future of what networking is going to look like from the perspective of vendors like Apstra, Veriflow, and Forward Networks. There’s also a great deal of discussion from customers and end users as well. One of the things that I think is being missed in all the talk about resources.

Time Is Not On Your Side

Many of the presenters, like Truman Boyes of Bloomberg and Peyton Maynard-Koran of EA, discussed the idea of building boxes from existing components instead of buying them from established networking vendors like Cisco and Arista. The argument does hold some valid ideas. If you can get your hardware from someone like EdgeCore or Accton and get your software from someone else like Pluribus Networks or Pica8 it looks like a slam dunk. You get 90% to 95% of a solution that you could get from Cisco with much less cost to you overall.

Companies like Facebook and Google have really pioneered this solution. Facebook’s OCP movement is really helping networking professionals understand the development that goes into building their own switches. Facebook’s commitment is also helping reduce the price of the components when an eager person wants to go build an OCP switch from parts they find at Radio Shack or from Amazon.

But, for Facebook, the development of a switch like this or the development of a platform is a sunk cost. Because the important resource to Facebook isn’t time. Facebook has teams of engineers sitting around developing things. For them, the time the least important resource. Time is something they have in abundance. Why is that? Because their development is entirely focused on their product. Google can afford to have 500 people working on a product with an IT focus like Google Reader or Google Wave because that’s what Google hires people to do.

Contrast that with the typical IT department at an enterprise. Even with thousands of users in Marketing, Management, and Finance there are usually only a handful of IT professionals. And those people have to cover storage, compute, networking, wireless, and software. The focus of the average law firm is not using IT resources to create a product. The focus of the business is leveraging IT to provide a service. A finance firm doesn’t have the time resources to commit to developing in-house solutions or creating IT hardware from components and freely available software.

Money, Money, Money.

Let’s look at the other side of the coin. Facebook and Google have oodles and oodles of time to build and develop things. They can get their developers to work together to build the hardware and software to integrate at a deep level. And because they understand it at that level, they can easily debug it instead of asking someone to solve their problem. What Facebook and Google don’t have is money.

To large firms like these, money is more important than time. When you have to purchase networking or storage equipment by the thousands or tens of thousands of units money becomes a huge issue. If you can save a few dollars per switch that can translate to huge savings in the long run. Even Facebook is doing this with OCP. By creating a demand for specific components for these devices, they can drive costs down across the board and save money for them. For Facebook, money is what is tracked for creating their infrastructure. The more that is saved, the more they can do with it.

In the enterprise, money isn’t quite as important as time. Money is important to businesses for sure. You don’t keep the lights on if you aren’t making money. But because IT supports the business and isn’t the entire business, money can be more easily allocated to projects from budgets. There are pools of money that can be used to purchase office furniture, catering services, or IT hardware. These resources can be reallocated efficiently like Facebook allocates time for projects. If the storage array needs to be upgraded or the wireless needs to be refreshed there can be discussions about how to accomplish it. Maybe the CEO doesn’t get a new desk this quarter. Or maybe there needs to be a few new sales discussions to create capital. But money isn’t as valuable as time. If you think I’m crazy try to get 10 minutes on a CEO’s calendar. Versus getting him to sign off on a purchase.

That’s the real value of cloud computing for IT professionals. They aren’t paying for scale or for availability. They’re really paying for time. They’re paying for a process that reduces the amount of time that they spend configuring low level tasks that are menial and time consuming. Building systems takes time. Automation reduces the time it takes. Process reduces it even further. So organizations looking to move to the cloud are essentially trading one resource, money, for a more important resource, time. Likewise, the large cloud providers that are building these systems are trading their resource, time, for a more valuable resource, money.


Tom’s Take

I don’t believe that smaller enterprises will ever truly embrace the idea of building their own OCP switches running custom Linux distros and custom built routing processes. Because to them, time is way too important. Time to focus on the business. Time to focus on supporting the way that the money is made. Time to do more. Likewise, I expect that large enterprises and providers like Facebook will continue to push the envelope of development and create new solutions. Because they have the time to play and test and build. And use those skills to make money. But I never see a world where those two places meet. Because resource contention is different between these two groups and it causes different outcomes. And the value of those resources are unlikely to change without massive disruption.

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It’s Not The Size of Your Conference Community

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Where do you get the most enjoyment from your conference attendance? Do you like going to sessions and learning about new things? Do you enjoy more of the social aspect of meeting friends and networking with your peers? Maybe it’s something else entirely?

It’s The Big Show

When you look at shows like Cisco Live, VMworld, or Interop ITX, there’s a lot going on. There are diverse education tracks attended by thousands of people. You could go to Interop and bounce from a big data session into a security session, followed by a cloud panel. You could attend Cisco Live and never talk about networking. You could go to VMworld and only talk about networking. There are lots of opportunities to talk about a variety of things.

But these conferences are huge. Cisco and VMware both take up the entire Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas. When in San Francisco, both of these events dwarf the Moscone Center and have to spread out into the surrounding hotels. That means it’s easy to get lost or be overlooked. I’ve been to Cisco Live before and never bumped into people I know from my area that said they were going, even when we were at the same party. There are tens of thousands of people roaming the halls.

That means that these conferences only work well if you can carve out your own community. Cisco Live has certainly done that over the years. There’s a community of a few hundred folks that are active on social media and have really changed the direction of the way Cisco engages with the community. VMworld has their various user groups as well as VMUnderground constantly pushing the envelope and creating more organic community engagement.

You Think You Know Me

The flip side is the smaller boutique conferences that have sprung up in recent years. These take a single aspect of a technology and build around it. You get a very laser-focused event with a smaller subset of attendees based on similar interests. It’s a great way to instantly get massive community involvement around an idea. Maybe it’s Monitorama. Or perhaps it’s OSCon. Or even GopherCon. You can see how these smaller communities are united around a singular subject and have great buy in.

However, the critical mass needed to make a boutique conference happen is much greater per person. Cisco Live and VMworld are going to happen every year. There are no less than 10,000 – 15,000 people that would come to either no matter what. Even if 50% of last year’s attendees decided to stay home this year, the conference would happen.

On the flip side, if 50% of the DockerCon or OpenStack Summit attendees stayed home next year, you’d see mass panic in the community. People would start questioning why you’re putting on a show for 2,500 – 3,000 users. It’s one thing to do it when you’re small and just getting started. But to put on a show for those numbers now would be a huge decision point and things would need to be discussed to see what happens going forward.

Cisco Live and VMworld are fun because of their communities. But boutique conferences exist because of their communities. It’s important to realize that and drastic changes in a smaller conference community have huge ripples throughout the conference. Two hundred Twitter users don’t have much impact on the message at Cisco Live. But two hundred angry users at DockerCon can make massive changes happen. Each member of the community is amplified the smaller the conference they attend.


Tom’s Take

Anyone that knows me knows that I love the community. I love seeing them grow and change and develop their own voice. It’s why I work for Tech Field Day. It’s why I go to Cisco Live every year. It’s why I’m happy to speak at VMUnderground events. But I also realize how important the community can be to smaller events. And how quickly things can fall apart when the community is fractured or divided. It’s critical for boutique conferences to harness the power of their communities to get off the ground. But you also have to recognize how important they are to you in the long run. You need to cultivate them and keep the focused on making everything better for everyone.

Moscone Madness

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The Moscone Center in San Francisco is a popular place for technical events.  Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) is an annual user of the space.  Cisco Live and VMworld also come back every few years to keep the location lively.  This year, both conferences utilized Moscone to showcase tech advances and foster community discussion.  Having attended both this year in San Francisco, I think I can finally state the following with certainty.


It’s time for tech conferences to stop using the Moscone Center.


Let’s face it.  If your conference has more than 10,000 attendees, you have outgrown Moscone.  WWDC works in Moscone because they cap the number of attendees at 5,000.  VMworld 2014 has 22,000 attendees.  Cisco Live 2014 had well over 20,000 as well.  Cramming four times the number of delegates into a cramped Moscone Center does not foster the kind of environment you want at your flagship conference.

The main keynote hall in Moscone North is too small to hold the large number of audience members.  In an age where every keynote address is streamed live, that shouldn’t be a problem.  Except that people still want to be involved and close to the event.  At both Cisco Live and VMworld, the keynote room filled up quickly and staff were directing the overflow to community spaces that were already packed too full.  Being stuffed into a crowded room with no seating or table space is frustrating.  But those are just the challenges of Moscone.  There are others as well.

I Left My Wallet In San Francisco

San Francisco isn’t cheap.  It is one of the most expensive places in the country to live.  By holding your conference in downtown San Francisco, you are forcing your 20,000+ attendees into a crowded metropolitan area with expensive hotels.  Every time I looked up a hotel room in the vicinity of VMworld or Cisco Live, I was unable to find anything for less than $300 per night.  Contrast that with Interop or Cisco Live in Las Vegas, where sub-$100 are available and $200 per night gets you into the hotel of the conference center.

Las Vegas is built for conferences.  It has adequate inexpensive hotel options.  It is designed to handle a large number of travelers arriving at once.  While spread out geographically, it is easy to navigate.  In fact, except for the lack of Uber, Las Vegas is easy to get around in than San Francisco.  I never have a problem finding a restaurant in Vegas to take a large party.  Bringing a group of 5 or 6 to a restaurant in San Francisco all but guarantees you won’t find a seat for hours.

The only real reason I can see for holding conferences at Moscone, aside from historical value, is the ease of getting materials and people into San Francisco.  Cisco and VMware both are in Silicon Valley.  Driving up to San Francisco is much easier than shipping the conference equipment to Las Vegas or Orlando.  But ease-of-transport does not make it easy on your attendees.  Add in the fact that the lower cost of setup is not reflected in additional services or reduced hotel rates and you can imagine that attendees have no real incentive to come to Moscone.


Tom’s Take

The Moscone Center is like the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.  While both have a history of producing wonderful events, both have passed their prime.  They are ill-suited for modern events.  They are cramped and crowded.  They are in unfavorable areas.  It is quickly becoming more difficult to hold events for these reasons.  But unlike the Cotton Bowl, which has almost 100 years of history, Moscone offers not real reason to stay.  Apple will always be here.  Every new iPhone, Mac, and iPad will be launched here.  But those 5,000 attendees are comfortable in one section of Moscone.  Subjecting your VMworld and Cisco Live users to these kinds of conditions is unacceptable.

It’s time for Cisco, VMware, and other large organizations to move away from Moscone.  It’s time to recognize that Moscone is not big enough for an event that tries to stuff in every user it can.  instead, conferences should be located where it makes sense.  Las Vegas, San Diego, and Orlando are conference towns.  Let’s use them as they were meant to be used.  Let’s stop the madness of trying to shoehorn 20,000 important attendees into the sardine can of the Moscone Center.