Looking back at BrainShare 2000

John Sheesley recently returned from Novell's BrainShare 2000 He's here to share what happened there this year, give details of BrainShare On Tour, and offer suggestions to help you decide whether to attend BrainShare next year.

As a NetWare administrator, you may not be aware of some of the new things that are going on at Novell. And it’s very easy to become overwhelmed with all of the noise generated by Microsoft’s PR machine, which can lead you to doubt the future viability of Novell and NetWare. Every year in March, Novell holds its annual BrainShare conference to help refocus attention on the company, its goals and objectives for the upcoming year, and its networking technologies. BrainShare 2000 recently concluded in Salt Lake City, and BrainShare On Tour is gearing up. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll tell you a little about what happened at BrainShare this year, give you some details about BrainShare On Tour, and help you decide if you should consider attending BrainShare 2001.
This Daily Drill Down will focus on BrainShare from the perspective of an attendee or potential attendee. Ron Nutter, TechRepublic’s frequent contributing editor for NetWare topics, presented at this year’s BrainShare and presents a perspective from the presenter’s point of view. You can find his Daily Drill Down, "BrainShare 2000: It Just Keeps Getting Better," on our NetWare track.
BrainShare is Novell’s annual technical conference. It focuses on technology, and the marketing and future of its products. Much like Microsoft’s TechEd, LinuxWorld, or any of the other tech conferences available, it brings people from around the world to a central location to focus on technology—in this case, Novell technology. These tech conferences give you the opportunity to get away from the pressures of daily work, marketing hype, and other distractions, and see what companies like Novell are doing to help you accomplish your company and personal goals.

As is tradition, Novell’s BrainShare is held in Salt Lake City. While not nearly as glamorous as other convention locations, Salt Lake City does provide good accommodations, a pretty backdrop with the Rockies, and a great convention center in the Salt Palace. Most of the hotels booked for the conference were located within walking distance of the Salt Palace. For those that weren’t, Novell provided regular bus transportation that was remarkably efficient, when the buses weren’t packed.

Packed buses were a common occurrence this year because of BrainShare’s high attendance. Novell estimated that over 7,000 people participated in BrainShare 2000. That represents a substantial increase over last year’s attendance of approximately 5,500.

Attendees came from around the world. I spoke with attendees from Australia, Denmark, and Germany. The number of European attendees was surprising, considering that BrainShare Europe will be held shortly in Nice, France. While walking around the Salt Palace, I heard many different dialects and languages being spoken.

It’s one big marketing scam, isn’t it?
Some technical "conferences" are little more than attendee-paid-for, captive marketing pitches. They’re very long on promises and marketing, and very short on actual technology demonstrations and learning. You pay big bucks to sit through long-winded sessions that show you little about actually getting your work done. After attending some of these so-called technical conferences, I was prepared for a marketing barrage at BrainShare. Surprisingly, the marketing pressure wasn’t that bad. BrainShare contained a combination of labs and presentations that showcased Novell technology, instead of just plain marketing.

That’s not to say that BrainShare didn’t have its share of marketing sessions. With the announcement of oneNet and DENIM, along with lots of talk about future versions of eDirectory and DirXML, there was indeed marketing hype present. However, there were far more actual technical sessions.

Technical session topics were wide and varied. You could find sessions covering almost every Novell product and technology. The sessions were broken into five major areas: Developer Code Breaks, Developer Lectures, Overviews and Futures, Real World Case Studies, and Technical Tutorials. Some of the sessions included:
  • Introduction to NetWare Programming in Java
  • NDS Access Through LDAP Using C APIs
  • Perl Programming on NetWare
  • Migrating LDAP Applications to NDS
  • Managing Red Hat Linux with NDS
  • ZENworks for Desktops: The Fastest Way to Windows 2000 Professional
  • Utilizing NDS eDirectory for Personalizing Web Content: CNN Interactive Case Study
  • How Novell Uses BorderManager Authentication Services and VPN to Provide Outsourced Remote Access
  • Implementing BorderManager Client-to-Site VPN Service (presented by TechRepublic’s Ron Nutter)

And this is only a very small, random sample of the sessions available. As you can see, BrainShare presented a little bit of everything.

Novell set up the Technology Lab to showcase its products. In the lab there were over 125 different stations, each focused on a different Novell technology. There were stations dedicated to GroupWise, ZENworks, digitalMe, in addition to NetWare and many other technologies. At each station there was an expert from Novell with whom you could discuss one-on-one (when they weren’t mobbed) the technologies and any problems you were having implementing them on your network.

The Technology Lab kept most of the marketing hype to a minimum. Novell kept most of the marketing stuff away from the Technology Lab and back in the Sponsor Solutions Showcase. There, you could visit sponsors such as Dell, IBM, and Compaq to see how they were implementing Novell products.

If you had specific questions that the folks in the Technology Labs couldn’t answer, Novell provided the opportunity to meet face to face with some of its top technologists at the Meet the Experts Reception. Held in the evening of the main conference, the reception enabled attendees to talk to the people who wrote a lot of the actual code in production. Sometimes going directly to the source can really help solve a problem. It also allows users to have some insight into what the designers were thinking when they created the products.

Break out the daggers
With Windows 2000 finally shipping not long before BrainShare, you’re probably not surprised that Novell took the opportunity to take some pot shots at Microsoft’s newest operating system. The standard line from Novell is one that many people in the networking field agree with: Windows 2000 Professional makes a great desktop operating system, but on the back end, Windows 2000 Server leaves a lot to be desired.

Almost everyone from Novell had nice things to say about Windows 2000 Professional. But no fewer than three technical sessions focused on Microsoft versus Novell topics. One session focused on Windows 2000 versus NetWare 5.1. Another session concentrated on Active Directory versus eDirectory. Others zoned in on the administration benefits of using products like NDS and ZENworks—rather than Microsoft-suggested solutions—in a network environment.

These sessions weren’t filled with your typical OS-religious invective either. Rather than focusing on dogma and opinions, the technical sessions focused on the technical differences between Microsoft and Novell products. In several instances, Novell showed shortcomings with Active Directory and Windows 2000 using live demonstrations and shipping code. In one demonstration, a Novell presenter made six small administrative changes to several user objects in a 10,000-object Active Directory tree. After continuing his presentation for 15 minutes (while checking back frequently to see if the update finished completing), he showed how the changes almost doubled the size of the Active Directory database. Another presenter demonstrated problems with Active Directory synchronization by showing how administrative changes you make to user objects (including such things as access rights) can disappear arbitrarily.

While Novell was busy taking shots at Windows 2000, it was careful not to alienate Windows 2000 users. Novell took some shots in jest, but most of them were from a purely technological point of view. At the same time, Novell was careful to point out how it planned to integrate Windows 2000 and Active Directory into its future plans. Rather than ignoring Windows 2000, or expecting people to avoid it and stick to NetWare, Novell showed how it planned to integrate Windows 2000 using eDirectory and DirXML. That way, you can choose the OS that's best suited for the task at hand, while still providing a one-stop place for administration and access.

Novell does certifications too, remember?
MCSEs are such the rage nowadays that it seems like people have forgotten about Novell’s CNE programs. BrainShare covered the CNE, MCNE (Master Certified Novell Engineer), and CNI (Certified Novell Instructor) certification programs very well.

Novell set up the Novell Learning Zone to showcase some of the self-training options available for potential CNEs. You could test-drive self-study courses, online labs, Novell Press books, and training videos. The courses covered in the Learning Zone included NetWare 5, NetWare 5.1, and ZENworks.

Novell also provided an onsite testing center. While at BrainShare, attendees could take any of the Novell certification exams and save 50 percenton the cost. This gave you the opportunity to upgrade your certifications or get them without having to shell out full price while information was fresh in your mind.

For existing MCNEs and CNIs, Novell provided a special lounge at the Wyndham Hotel where MCNEs and CNIs could mingle. Novell also provided special receptions where MCNEs and CNIs could hang out with Novell Education employees and attend special presentations made by groups such as the CNI Advisory Council and Novell Education senior management.

Novell introduced the CDE (Certified Directory Engineer) certification program at BrainShare 2000. CDEs are certified in eDirectory for cross-platform solutions. The CDE certification also introduces the concept of Practicums.

By now, everyone is familiar with the horror stories of Paper CNEs and MCSEs who can pass tests to get certifications, but barely know how to turn on a computer. With the CDE certification program and the introduction of the practicum, it’s next to impossible to just read and pass the tests. The practicums involve fixing several actual problems on intentionally broken directory trees. The testing service lets the candidate dial into a system that has a set number of directory issues and problems. The candidate has a certain amount of time to successfully fix all of the problems. This forces potential CDEs to be familiar with how to fix problems, rather than how to read a book and pass a written multiple-choice exam.

All work and no play
Everyone knows that these conferences aren’t completely cut and dry. There has to be a little fun—even in a place like Salt Lake City that isn't known for fun and excitement. Novell did a good job of making BrainShare as entertaining as it was informative.

First, it set up Planet Novell, an area where attendees could unwind between sessions. There were dozens of recliners in one area in front of a JumboTron that played BrainShare TV. While not napping in the chairs, attendees could view some of the General Sessions or see what was going on in other areas at BrainShare.

Planet Novell also had some great video games available, including a ride-on motorcycle simulator, a skiing simulator, and the obligatory Quake III network. (After playing for 45 minutes, I couldn't manage better than second place in a field of 16 players.) There was also pinball, basketball, and foosball.

Oh. I almost forgot about BrainMan. I don’t know how, though, as it was an almost-two-story head with a giant exposed brain. You could challenge BrainMan with technical questions about Novell software.

Almost every evening, Novell and other sponsors had activities for attendees. They made use of the Salt Palace, the Delta Center and the Utah Fun Dome to provide food and fun. Some of the activities included laser tag, miniature golf, frolicking Neptunian mermaids, and Martian warriors.

Some of the sessions themselves were entertaining, as well as informative. Gary Porter, from the University of Kentucky, provided a light-hearted, but educational session about implementing NDS in a multi-platform environment. Bob Ross was absolutely hilarious in his session about network optimization; he provided lots of little tidbits about the early design of Ethernet frames, token-ring versus Ethernet, and the occasional Bill Gates joke. While I didn’t have the opportunity to attend any of Laura Chappell’s sessions, I'd heard that they are always golden.

One of the funniest sessions of all that I attended was The BrainShow. The BrainShow was Wednesday morning’s General Session, which was led by Carl Ledbetter, Novell’s VP for Business and Corporate Development. The BrainShow was a send-up of late night TV, and Carl did a great job of emceeing a talk show with representatives from Intel, IBM, Lucent Technologies, and Sun as guests. A wonderful blend of Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and Bob Hope, Carl led off with a demo of how to solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than three minutes. (Everyone in the hall got his or her own Novell Rubik’s Cube.) The BrainShow then went on to do its own Top 10—The Top 10 Reasons Why Novell Holds BrainShare in Salt Lake City Every Year (Number 1: Beer tastes better when you have to hunt for it.) There was also a very good Lettermanesque video sequence where Carl went running through Salt Lake City looking to ask a question of Novell’s CEO, Dr. Eric Schmidt.

Novell’s new vision: oneNet and DENIM
BrainShare was about more than just NetWare. As a matter of fact, even though there were many NetWare sessions, the casual non-computer observer may not have realized that Novell sells NetWare. Much of the focus was on Novell’s new technologies and visions using eDirectory and DirXML to achieve Novell’s plan of oneNet and DENIM.

By now, you’ve probably read a lot about Novell’s new vision of oneNet and DENIM. This is Novell’s strategy of “Hit them where they ain’t.” While Microsoft has been focusing on creating (with Windows 2000) a more stable file/print/application server with some directory technology built in, and attacking NetWare on the LAN, WAN, and Internet; Novell is attempting to dodge and counterattack with its strengths.

With oneNet, Novell is looking past the LAN and WAN and directly to the Net. Novell doesn’t refer to the Net as the Internet, although the Internet is included in the vision. "Net" for Novell refers to the whole conglomeration of all disparate networks viewed as one giant network—oneNet.

Novell wants to provide the services and software that will link all of these different networks together into one giant network. Although the vision includes Novell’s traditional NetWare operating system, it goes beyond NetWare to include LANs running on operating systems as varied as Solaris, NT, Windows 2000, and Linux.

Viewing Novell as the fabric that will weave all of the different networks together to fulfill the oneNet vision, Novell came up with the DENIM (Directory Enabled Net Infrastructure Model) concept. . Novell repeatedly, and not so subtlety, reinforced the DENIM concept throughout the week by having all of the Novell employee’s dress in denim.

Novell plans to execute oneNet and DENIM using a combination of its own technologies and established Internet standards. DENIM is built upon Novell’s eDirectory platform, which is Novell’s rechristened, cross-platform NDS version 8. Novell plans to use future versions of eDirectory to link together different operating systems and applications to simplify things for both administrators and end users. At the most basic level, it provides one central place where administrators and end users can interface with all of the back-end applications and operating systems. For example, with a DENIM-enabled network, you could forget about such things as having multiple logons for different applications.

As for open standard technologies, Novell plans to use Internet standard technologies such as LDAP, Java, and XML. This is another tactic stolen from Bill Gates’ own playbook, “embrace and extend.” However, contrary to how Microsoft traditionally does this, Novell plans much more embracing than extending. It plans just enough extending to make all of the different standards work together and establish a marketing foothold without embracing the open standards too tight as to close them off.

An example of "embrace and extend" is in the upcoming DirXML product. Taking the new Internet standard of XML to a new height, Novell plans on using DirXML as the glue to tie together different applications, operating systems, and directory systems. DirXML will allow you to perform tasks such as synchronize information in eDirectory, Active Directory, Lotus Notes, and several other products.

On the road again
If you didn’t get to attend BrainShare 2000 in Salt Lake City this year, you can attend an abbreviated version of BrainShare in a city near you. Called BrainShare on Tour, Novell plans to tour 41 cities in the United States and 10 cities in Canada starting in April and ending in August.

For a $299 advance registration fee ($349 on site), you can choose from two days worth of 29 different sessions that are identical to their Salt Lake City counterparts. Some of the sessions that will be on tour include:
  • eDirectory Deployment
  • Comparing Windows 2000 to NetWare 5.1
  • Using ZENworks Policies to Configure and Control the Desktop
  • Building a Scaleable and Fault Tolerant VPN
  • Using Net Publisher and Office 2000 to Build a Secure Web Publishing Environment

If you didn’t get the chance to attend BrainShare 2000, or couldn’t afford to go, BrainShare on Tour may be a good alternative for you. To find out more about BrainShare on Tour, you can go to Novell’s BrainShare on Tour Web site .

Should you think about going next year?
The biggest question about technical conferences is whether they are worth the registration fee ($1,595 this year), airfare, hotel, and other expenses. Money spent on technical conferences is often better spent on certification courses or other training closer to home. As conferences go, however, BrainShare is a very good technical conference to attend.

If you’re going to expand your Novell network over the course of this year, integrate Windows 2000 or other operating systems into your Novell network, or add new Novell management products to your existing network, then you should consider attending BrainShare next year. Keep an eye on how Novell progresses with marketing its current technologies and future plans. If things go as well this year with products like eDirectory, DirXML, and NetWare 5.1, as they did last year with NetWare 5, BrainShare 2001 should surpass BrainShare 2000.

John Sheesley has been supporting networks since 1986, when he got his hands on NetWare 2.2. Since then, he’s worked with the Jefferson County Police Department in Louisville, KY and the Genlyte-Thomas Group. John’s been a technical writer for several leading publishers, including TechRepublic, The Cobb Group, and ZDJournals. If you’d like to contact John, send him an e-mail .

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