With all of your constant duties keeping your network running smoothly, it’s sometimes easy to lose focus on the big picture. You get so used to fighting fires that you don’t have time to keep up with the latest trends and plan for the future. But events like BrainShare can help you catch up on what’s new in the world of technology and can even provide information on how to make your network run more efficiently.

Every year, Novell holds its BrainShare conference to gather Novell officials, administrators running Novell products, and third-party vendors together in one place. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll fill you in on what happened at this year’s conference: BrainShare 2002. By discovering what you missed, you can decide whether you might benefit from attending future conferences.

Behind the scenes
Even though I’ve been attending BrainShare conferences for about 10 years, I wasn’t able to get as much behind-the-scenes access before the conference as I had in previous years. This was primarily due to added security considerations. But I did manage to get the scoop on a few things.

Attendance this year was a little below 6,000, significantly lower than last year’s attendance level of almost 8,000. This drop was primarily due to post-September 11 travel concerns and the troublesome economy.

Because of the consistent high attendance in the past, Novell has talked about potentially moving the conference to a larger facility. According to Steve Sheffield, one of the BrainShare planners, more than 70 tractor-trailer loads of equipment required for the conference are brought to the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City. That, in combination with the amount of speakers and support staff from Novell, would make the conference more expensive and harder to put on if it were held someplace else.

Paging Laura Chappell
One of the main reasons to attend BrainShare is to become immersed in Novell’s networking technology and to see how Novell solves problems you encounter in your day-to-day routine. Novell provides detailed lecture sessions that cover topics that give administrators real information.

It just wouldn’t be BrainShare if Laura Chappell weren’t presenting at least a few BrainShare sessions. She is one of BrainShare’s best and most popular presenters. This year, her session topics were as follows:

  • Hot tools for analyzing networks
  • Detecting and preventing cybercrime
  • Protocol analysis: On-site case studies

A word to the wise on attending her sessions: Register early for them. If you’re attending a session prior to one of Chappell’s sessions, plan to leave the session a little early so that when you arrive at her session, you can find a seat. If you can’t get to all of her sessions, visit Packet-level.com. There, you can keep up with the updates to protocol analyzer filters and other interesting information that she finds.

Sitting in on Chappell’s sessions is almost as good as having her visit your company for an on-site protocol analysis. I was fortunate enough to work for a company to which she made one of her few on-site visits. She found a few problems we didn’t even know about: Imagine explaining to your boss that the new Nortel 450 switch you just paid $1,200 for is actually functioning like a hub. In her sessions, Chappell explains how to find such problems easily.

More sessions to choose from
Novell had dozens of presenters, including myself, to make up the more than 275 sessions you could choose from, and most of the sessions were presented twice. Some of the sessions you could choose from this year included the following:

  • NetWare Futures And Roadmaps
  • Six Reasons To Get NetWare 6 Over Windows
  • Integrating NetWare 6 And Windows 2000
  • How To Implement GroupWise Document Management
  • Tips And Tricks For Using eDirectory Utilities
  • Understanding Novell DirXML Technology
  • An Early Look At MySQL On Novell NetWare
  • Analyzing Security In A Novell Environment
  • Advanced DSRepair
  • Novell BorderManager: Advanced Packet Filtering
  • Preparing For The CDE Practicum Exam And The Real World

Sessions ranged in detail from broad overviews of software and future directions right down to the nuts and bolts of key Novell products. You could even attend sessions that covered detailed business case studies to see how other businesses solved important issues using Novell software. Business case studies covered such organizations as:

  • The University of Kentucky
  • CNN
  • Sumitomo Bank
  • The City of Los Angeles

NUI Hotlabs
This year proved to be very popular for the NetWare Users International (NUI) Hotlabs headed up by Ed Schlictenmeyer. This year, NUI offered sessions about:

  • DirXML
  • NetWare 6
  • GroupWise 6
  • ZENworks

Some BrainShare attendees skip these sessions, but I think they are a must-see. NUI spends a lot of time to make sure these labs provide you with a hands-on feel for installing products covered in the sessions. After spending time kicking the tires on a few of these products in the Hotlabs, you will feel a lot more comfortable in working with the product back in your office.

New product directions from Novell
At BrainShare, you’ll also find information about where Novell is going with its key products. This can help you make long-term goals in designing your network and planning future purchases and budgets.

This year’s BrainShare revealed some interesting information about products that really haven’t seen any improvements for several years, such as BorderManager. The good news is that these products are on the move again. With the reorganization within Novell, energetic people like Scott Jones have been put in charge of previously languishing products.

For example, BorderManager 3.7 will be shipping just a couple of weeks after BrainShare. BorderManager 3.7 will be followed later this year by an enhancement pack that will fix issues found in the product after it ships and will add a few new features.

Although I can’t give you details, I think it is reasonable to expect an even more feature-rich BorderManager by mid-2003. The big change I noticed in BorderManager 3.7 is that the packet-filtering process is now handled via a Web browser instead of a CWORTHY interface, the filters are now kept in NDS instead of a separate text file, and the VPN client now includes a personal firewall to protect the remote client while it’s connected to your network.

DirXML is another up-and-coming star within Novell. DirXML 1.1 will soon allow password synchronization, which has been missing from the product until now. Work is already in progress for the next version of DirXML, which will be much easier to install and won’t require so many calls to Novell Consulting for assistance.

One thing that I have noticed at this year’s BrainShare is the addition of a third management console platform for Novell products. In the past, Novell’s emphasis for network management had been on going away from NetWare Administrator to ConsoleOne. While at BrainShare, I noticed that several sessions mentioned a new management tool based around a Web browser interface. This was a particularly interesting discovery that means either network administrators may have to deal with three different consoles that handle day-to-day tasks or that Novell plans to consolidate the administrative tasks to one platform.

Meetings with Novell management
While attending BrainShare, not just as a speaker but also as a member of the press, I was invited to several evening events where I was able to talk directly to Novell management about the company’s plans. In a discussion with Chris Stone, vice chairman—office of the CEO, I shared my thoughts on how Novell is currently trapped in a Beta vs. VHS battle with Novell playing the part of Beta (a technically superior product that lacks in the area of marketing effort). Stone acknowledged that I’m not alone in that opinion and that Novell is working on addressing it.

Evidence of this counterattack appeared just days before the start of the conference. Novell made an announcement that it is going to hire a chief marketing officer. Perhaps this position signals the end of Novell’s stealth marketing effort.

In this same dinner meeting, I was able to get a better idea of the new direction in which Novell is heading. Traditionally, when it became the victim of FUD or misinformation coming from other companies (mostly located in the Pacific Northwest), Novell almost never publicly reacted. As with mudslinging political campaigns, this lack of reaction seemed to suggest that the falsehoods were indeed fact. Novell has finally decided to fight back. Novell has counterattacked such tactics with demands of apologies, lawsuits, and even Web site campaigns of its own.

It’s worth the trip
It’s easy to become overwhelmed with your daily routine or distracted by propaganda from competitors. BrainShare can help you block out all of the static and focus on your network’s needs. At BrainShare, you get a better idea of where Novell is going, and you get to spend time learning about how to fix problems from a practical perspective. Work for BrainShare 2003 has already begun. If you didn’t attend BrainShare 2002, put the next conference on your calendar.