Putting on a show as big as Microsoft Tech.Ed is no mean feat. Preparing a convention venue for a few thousand demanding and IT-savvy delegates, not to mention three days’ worth of technically-intense presentations, sessions and labs, involves months of preparation and the combined efforts of many teams.
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The focus of the 2009 round of Tech.Ed events is centred strongly around Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 – Microsoft’s major product releases this year. Microsoft Australia were looking for way to give Tech.Ed delegates as good an experience with Windows 7 as possible, so early this year an idea was floated to give each attendee a netbook (to have, not just to borrow) with Windows 7 preloaded. As if staging the event was not difficult enough, now the infrastructure had to accommodate an additional 2500 machines, using software which was not yet available in its final form.
A project of this scale would challenge any IT team, so how have Microsoft achieved it? I chatted with three of the main organisers and technical managers with Microsoft Australia responsible for making sure that this year’s Tech.Ed Australia netbook extravaganza will go off without a hitch.
Andrew Coates is a Developer Evangelist with Microsoft Australia and is the content owner for Tech.Ed Australia 2009.
Nick Hodge is an evangelist with Microsoft Australia and is responsible for bringing many aspects of Tech.Ed Australia 2009 together
Jorke Odolphi is an Infrastructure Architect Evangelist with Microsoft Australia, and is responsible for the technical infrastructure behind Tech.Ed.
Please note – the following content is an amalgamation of two separate interviews.
JB: Where did the idea for providing every delegate with a netbook come from?
NH: The original idea came from Andrew Coates and Ben English who work in DPE. Having been in the software industry for a long time, the question for us was how can attendees get their hands dirty and actually try out the software. It’s hard to get a proper experience of Windows 7 at a conference with just the DVD, so the idea was to give everyone a netbook with the OS preloaded. The availability and price point of netbooks made the idea feasible.
From that I was asked (or was volunteered) to work on the technical, legal, marketing and financial feasibility, and that was done in late February/early March. The feasibility study, including contract negotiations and sign-off took 28 weeks to complete.
We had to make sure that the systems purchased from HP would run Windows 7 well (which they do), and that we could get all the necessary drivers. We also had to make sure that the event would fall within the Windows 7 launch window, and we weren’t even sure whether we’d be able to deploy the systems with the RTM code or whether we’d have to use the RC build.
When the global product teams were looking at how to ensure that Windows 7 would be successful in the marketplace, they decided that the user experience on offer at Tech.Ed would play a major role.
Microsoft has some very strict policies in terms of “gifting”, especially to public sector employees, so we had to determine a mechanism by which we could adhere to our own policies as well as avoiding putting some attendees into a difficult position. But we didn’t want those people to have a different experience at Tech.Ed from everyone else, so that’s why we implemented the hand-back procedure at the end of the conference. The returns will be donated to charity, and for me personally it makes the whole thing even more worthwhile, knowing that the machines will be going to people with a far greater need than us.
AC: The netbook project presented itself to us as a great opportunity to showcase Windows 7 – from the perspective of mobile workers with a large amount of infrastructure at their fingertips, and also from the deployment perspective, how it’s possible to roll out that many netbooks for an event like Tech.Ed.
The Tech.Ed Backstage blog is a great place to see all the work which has gone on into making Tech.Ed possible, and Jorke has been the driving force behind that.
JO: The team I run focus on service delivery, so we approached the project from the end-to-end user experience, what the delegates would see when they fired up their netbook for the first time, how it would connect to the wireless and so on.
This year’s Tech.Ed is easily the largest temporary network and infrastructural deployment in Australia, if not in the AsiaPac region.
JB: Both within Microsoft and externally, how much interest has there been in the project?
JO: Internally there has been a huge amount of interest. We’ve had a lot of support from product teams in the US, making sure that we’ve been on the right track in making use of the deployment technologies, and also key stakeholders within the company have been very keen to make sure that the project is as successful as possible.
Outside the company the popularity of the Backstage blog has been testament to the interest people have shown in the project. Everyone has wanted to know how we’re planning to use the netbooks, how we’ll deploy them and so on.
JB: The infrastructure needed to run Tech.Ed is always significant. To what extent did it need to be scaled up to accommodate an extra 2500 machines?
NH: There were three main considerations – internet connection to the venue, backend servers, and the wireless and wired backend infrastructure. Servers were not really affected – we use them to store virtual machines for demos. In fact, with virtualization we were able to consolidate and reduce the physical number of machines needed. The internet connection has been the most stressful issue because the venue only has a 100Mbit connection. That’s fine for what they normally require but we needed a lot more for Tech.Ed. On the Tech.Ed Backstage blog we’ve got some pictures of technicians laying fibre cable under the highway opposite the venue, and that has increased the available bandwidth considerably.
Inside the venue, David Connors has been blogging about some of the interesting problems he’s found with the wireless infrastructure. When we held Tech.Ed at the same venue in 2007 we noticed that the wireless access was not that great, so we knew that adding in the netbooks would cause significant problems. David has been working to resolve a whole host of issues from simple hardware antenna problems to some quite complex software version issues and device misconfiguration.
Power has been another issue. It’s always frustrating when you go to a conference and there’s a lack of available power points. I was able to get some extra budget allocation for extra power boards in each room to cope with the inevitable extra demand with all the netbooks. Fortunately there is enough phase power running to the venue to cope, but we did have some room-to-room power outages while we were setting up the build and recharge stations.
JO: The convention centre has one of the first Cisco N-based wireless networks. We did a lot of work in troubleshooting issues when we first showed up onsite in March, as we found that only approximately 16% of the available wireless bandwidth was being allowed through the client. We worked with Cisco to fix the issue, and now the infrastructure has 100% of its wireless bandwidth available.
That process took quite a long time, wandering around with spectrum analysers and Wi-Fi spies, working out issues with interference. There are 50 access points around the venue, which are ABGN devices. Most of the clients will be using AGN, and we’ve actually turned off the wireless-B network throughout the whole venue, as beacon signals were causing too many problems. We also upgraded the backend switching infrastructure to support gigabit ethernet to each wireless AP.
We also brought in a new internet connection to the venue – a 500Mbit connection which is in addition to the existing 100Mbit connection.
JB: Which SKU of Windows 7 are the netbooks running?
NH: Windows 7 Ultimate RTM, which is a non-transferrable license. Each attendee will also receive an install DVD with their serial number and 90 days of full Microsoft support from the time of activation. The netbooks are also covered by a standard HP warranty, active from time of collection.
Each netbook also has the technical preview of Office 2010, as well as a version of Office Communicator with BPOS (Business Productivity Online Service) connectivity and everyone has an account available to them if they wish. Microsoft Security Essentials is also installed, as well as installers for Visual Studio 2010 and the Expression tools. We’re really expecting delegates to use their netbooks as a digital backpack – installing trial software from vendors, downloading presentation packs and so on.
The netbook image is obviously critical, so Jeff Alexander was nominated to be the build owner – everything which was included or excluded from the image was his call. Jeff and John Pritchard worked together on the deployment process, and they both worked very closely with the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT) team in the US, who have recently released an RC build of the toolkit. They used MDT 2010 RC along with Windows Deployment Services to build and deploy the images using a Lite Touch install.
We wanted to give people the best Windows 7 experience possible, so we didn’t include things like IIS or SQL Server. John Pritchard created some excellent installation scripts to handle the laying-down of the image, driver and Office installation, IE shortcuts and so on. They both did an excellent job, and in fact there were bugs found in MDT 2010 RC which will be fixed in the final version which were discovered as a result of their efforts.
JB: What were some of the technical issues you encountered?
JO: The key thing we found was the performance available on the netbooks. We found that when deploying the image, which is around 8GB in size, the multicast push was slower than we expected as the available CPU and disk I/O caused bottlenecks. No matter how fast we could push the image down the wire, the netbooks could only write that image at a speed which they could handle, so we encountered some quite significant slowdowns. We also ran into power issues caused by attempting to image 500 netbooks at a time.
JB: Were you using WDS on Server 2008 R2, and did you need to modify the multicast tolerance thresholds to avoid the image push downscaling to unicast?
JO: Yes, and no. MDT uses a different method to deploy. WDS in Server 2008 R2 has two separate components, one of which is the Transport server. You can deploy from WDS using a multicast command line tool which doesn’t broadcast, so you’re not using the WDS server to deploy but rather the Transport server. This also means that you don’t need an image set up within WDS, but can simply leverage off the available infrastructure.
JB: Was imaging done using a single server?
JO: We started with a single server, but because of time constraints we scaled out to five WDS servers which was quite a simple thing to do.
JB: There’s going to be a mass collaboration experience with the netbooks during the opening keynote. Although details aren’t public, what were some of the ideas which were floated which didn’t make the cut?
NH: We did have an idea to use the netbooks to create a huge picture like they do in sports stadiums. We commissioned one of our developers to do a proof of concept, and while they determined that from a coding perspective it was definitely possible, there was a logistical issue in that because the netbooks have limited screen real estate we would have needed at least 3000 netbooks to make it work.
JB: What has the feedback from attendees been like?
NH: Very positive. Everyone wants to get hold of their netbook as soon as possible, to know whether they can reinstall software or install a variety of third-party applications. I think we’re going to see some emergent behaviour in the way the netbooks will be used – behaviour which we never expected. It’s going to be a really interesting experience.
The effort across Microsoft to make this work has been amazing. It’s probably not something we will do again – it’s one of those truly unique projects.
AC: We’re also expecting a lot of buzz on Twitter around the event – the #auteched hashtag is already receiving quite a lot of traffic, with the 2500 netbooks at the event that’s only going to massively increase. We’re also going to encourage delegates to tweet from each of the sessions with the session hashtag, so we can see in realtime what’s happening in each of those sessions.
I’m hoping that people will see how it is possible to scale the infrastructure out to this extent and that it does work, and that everyone will have a great experience playing with the technology, and how effective these netbooks can be. Social media is going to play a key role in this, changing the way in which the IT pro community communicate with each other, and we’re going to push people hard to be on Twitter and the other social media networks. Finally, it’s a great opportunity for us to show off the sort of things we’re working on, and the more opportunities we have, the better for everyone.
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For more in-depth information on the background behind this year’s Tech.Ed Australia, check out the Tech.Ed Backstage blog and Andrew Dugdell’s Win7 #auteched blog.
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Nothing wow in what these guys did no different to any Tom, Dick or Harry in the same position.
The real wow is the marketing department who bundled up the netbooks with Windows 7. That was a marketing coup and a half.
Technically it’s a relatively standard deployment, yes, but doing it as part of a delegate event is pretty cool…and it WAS a lot of work 🙂
I think what is special here that they had to deploy a large number of netbooks in a very short time. I have underestimated myself the time factor several times. Deploying 2500 machines is very different to installing 250×10 computers. The fact that netbooks are much slower than standard computers is a key problem here. If you ever deployed a new OS on a large number of outdated machines you know what I am talking about. Also, I am not a network engineer, but considering that 2500 users will go online simultaneously via Wi-Fi on a relatively small area is probably a challenge.
Excellent interview. It’s interesting to learn about the challenges even Microsoft faces when attempting large-scale deployments.
Some effort! Waow, really a spectacular achievment, thanks for the information, next year I Will want to go to the TechEd Australia, Windows 7 ROCKS!