For events that have networked computers, presenters who access the Internet, or other connectivity needs, planners need a grasp of connectivity basics. We've assembled answers to your most frequently asked questions, provided a checklist for tech-savvy site inspections, and supplied definitions of many of the terms you can expect to encounter.
How Much Bandwidth Is Enough?
Is one T1 line (see terminology sidebar, page 35) going to provide enough bandwidth for attendees at your conference? It depends on what they plan to do. The calculation is simple enough: Multiply the number of expected users by the amount of bandwidth each user is expected to consume. For example: A T1 line operates at 1.544 Mbps (megabits per second). If it is expected that 100 attendees will be connected to a network at any one time, and all will be streaming data — say, watching an online PowerPoint — then there will be 15 k (kilobits) available per user. That's too slow. Network organizers shoot for minimum bandwidth per user of approximately:
- 128k — to connect to a Virtual Private Network
- 256k — for streaming video (not broadcast quality)
- 320k — for high-speed Internet
Bandwidth demand will change depending on the applications running on the local area network and on the number of users, among other issues. In the not-too-distant past, a couple of ISDN lines could handle registration for a meeting of 500 or 1,000 people. Now planners often want to keep registration live and run it back to a facility where the event's database resides. And planners who want to offer such amenities as an on-site agenda-builder will also boost bandwidth demand.
What is most important is that the connectivity provider sit down with the meeting organizer to discuss what the connectivity experience is going to be like and to decide how much bandwidth is necessary within the limits of the meeting's budget.
Connectivity and Site Selection
Given the rapid rate of change in network technology, it is impossible, if only from a spending viewpoint, to always have the latest and greatest. Nonetheless, understanding the available network technology is important. For example: A hotel may have a lot of RJ-45 jacks (network plug receptacles) in its meeting rooms. What are those jacks connected to? Is the Ethernet network driven by simple hubs or by more sophisticated and efficient switches? Is it a 10BaseT standard Ethernet network or a 100BaseT Fast Ethernet network? The answers matter, especially if the meeting calls for a connection to a network at a corporate office. Having a robust network in place can save a lot of setup time and money that would otherwise be spent snaking cables through back hallways.
Just as it is important to know the quality of the network inside the venue, it is also important to know what kind of connectivity is coming in from the outside. Ideal is an existing high-speed connection to the Internet — a dedicated T1 or T3 line. Or there may be ISDN or DSL lines (these are digital telephone standards). Barring that, leased lines can be brought in, if they are ordered well in advance (a month or more).
Network experts stress the importance of a technical site inspection. It is not really possible to write out specs for what is needed until the physical layout has been explored and bandwidth and security considerations have been taken into account. In addition, pricing models are different everywhere; they may be based on time, usage, or some other formula.
Virtual Networks: Untangling the Acronyms
A Virtual Local Area Network (VLAN) is a network that is mapped out by some means other than physical location. At a meeting, this means that VLAN users, for example, can be sorted by whether they are attendees, exhibitors, meeting staff, and so on. It's a way of routing a network using software rather than physical switches. Its principal advantages are flexibility (you can switch network routing around without physically changing anything) and control (you can decide who gets what level of access).
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is like a regular computer network in that there have to be at least two computers and a medium that connects them. In a regular network, such as an Ethernet network, a physical connection between computers — a wire, or a wireless signal — connects to a specific network. The difference between that and a VPN is that the medium isn't specified — so the two (or 200, or 2,000) computers may be connected by a LAN, a wide area network, or (most often) the Internet. The “private” part of a VPN is that the computers connect to each other across the Internet as though they were directly connected; this private route is called a tunnel.
Experts point out that a lot of VPN hardware is not compatible. So if a VPN is called for, it may be better to bring in separate VPN hardware than to try to wrestle with incompatibilities on a hotel's network.
What About Security and Backup?
More often than not, hotels have open — rather than secure — Internet access, whether wired or wireless. It is unlikely that hotels will offer secure Internet access as a service any time in the near future simply because of liability concerns. So security becomes the concern of the event organizer, which means discussing the degree of security required with the network vendor. It is important to understand, say experts, that the main concern is not so much having firewalls as it is having good encryption for users working in a public network environment.
One cost that planners often balk at is connectivity backup. If an event is dependent on something coming in over the Internet — whether it's registration, outside applications, or demos — then it is absolutely necessary to have a backup connection.
As Chris Meyer, CEO of Conference Planners, says, “If you have a T1 coming in from AT&T or WorldCom, we like to have an equal pipe coming in from another carrier, just in case, for whatever reason, the provider's point-of-presence goes down. That's a significant piece of change, and clients don't like to pay for it, but it is absolutely essential.”
Pros and Cons of Wireless Networks
Wireless networks can provide the ultimate in convenience, and they reduce or eliminate the need for hardwired “Internet cafes.” Instead, attendees with laptops or PDAs with wireless network cards can access the network from any spot in the venue, as long as there is a wireless access point nearby. (Remember, this isn't totally wireless — the access points are hardwired.)
Wireless networks have many advantages. For example, if attendees are tech-oriented, they are likely to show up with wireless network cards. In other words, they bring the receiving end of the network with them at no cost to the meeting planner. Convenience is also a plus. A wireless network can be installed just a few days before a meeting. It's a matter of setting up a proxy server that will “talk” to the access points and then installing the access points, which are, in effect, network hubs with antennas. Any device with a wireless (Wi-Fi) card can connect with the access points.
It's important to know how attendees are apt to use the network (Internet access, downloading files from local servers, etc.), the number of attendees likely to use the network, and the desired speed and quality of service. Estimating usage is especially important because individual access points can be easily overwhelmed if, for example, more than 50 wireless devices try to access the network simultaneously. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to add access points at high-traffic spots once the event is under way.
Even if many attendees bring their own wireless network cards, many may not, and loaners should be available. For this reason, and because the hardware used in wireless networks is about twice as expensive as that used for wired networks, experts recommend finding a sponsor that will contribute cards and access points to the event in return for some kind of marketing opportunity. It's a good idea to have a sole supplier anyway: Even though there is a standard for wireless network communications, called 802.11b, there are still occasional problems with cross-compatibility.
On the Other Hand …
The downside of wireless networks is security. Eric Scott, CEO of Redmond, Wash.-based EventPoint, is particularly eloquent on the subject: “Wireless is great, but be careful what you're exposing. If I'm part of a wireless network, and the CEO of Enron is also on that network, I have access to his machine. We hope he has everything protected with passwords, but we all know how often that happens. It's simple for me to set up some kind of port scanner on my machine and start trying to find drives [on the network] that aren't locked down.”
Most attendees who use laptops provided by their employers already have Virtual Private Network software installed, which will ensure that all transmissions are encrypted. Even so, everyone should be on notice if an open network is installed.
NETWORK TERMS: Part 1
Hotel meeting networks run over copper wire, fiber-optic cable, or both. What's important is the transmission capacity of the infrastructure and of the hotel's “pipe” to the Internet.
Category 3 (Cat 3): Will run one regular voice telephone, ISDN service, or a 10BaseT Ethernet network.
Category 5 (Cat 5): Will run 100BaseT Fast Ethernet network. Category 5e: “Enhanced” Cat 5 to run a Gigabit Ethernet network. Category 6 and 7: Very high-capacity copper lines that compete with fiber-optic cable in terms of potential capacity, but are cheaper to install and operate. You'll find them in convention centers where DSL service is available.
T-carrier numbers refer to the bandwidth capacities of copper wire, fiber-optic cable, coaxial cable, or a wireless system. When a network installer talks about a T1 line, it's a measurement, not a thing. T1 = 1.544 Mbps; T3 = 44.736 Mbps (28 times the capacity of a T1)
Digital System Hierarchy (U.S. and Canada only)
Some network installers will refer to DS-1 or DS-3 service. Like T-carrier numbers, this a capacity standard. In the United States and Canada, this refers to T1 and T3 service without what are called “framing bits.” It isn't important to understand framing bits, only that in most of North America, DS-1 = Unformatted T1; DS-3 = Unformatted T3.
Optical System Hierarchy
SONET is a data transmission standard for fiber-optic lines. The SONET (synchronous optical network) standard is useful because it is flexible enough to carry broadband signals, including video, without a lot of special decoding equipment when a network is run between facilities (e.g., a hotel and a convention center). It can carry huge amounts of data and still be compatible with lower-capacity line service. Tip: Not every facility is up-to-date. If your techies see DSX-1 and DSX-3 panels in the communications closets, the SONET equipment is out-of-date.
OC-1 = 51.85 Mbps
OC-3 = 155.52 Mbps
OC-12 = 622.08 Mbps
OC-48 = 2,488.32 Mbps
Fun International Facts
DS-1 in the United States is T1, but E1 in Europe. E1 has a larger capacity: 2.048 Mbps.
DS-1 service in North America is the same as T1, but in Japan DS-1 is J1. T1 and J1 are both 1.544 Mbps but are not compatible.
NETWORK TERMS: Part 2
What's a LAN?
In simplest terms, a Local Area Network (LAN) is a way of connecting computers, printers, and other peripheral devices on a common wire. (A VLAN, or virtual LAN, includes workstations that aren't in the same physical location.) Ethernet is the most popular of all LAN protocols because any computer can operate on it.
Because Ethernet networks send lots of signals over a single line, they need to be managed. Various pieces of hardware are available to do this. A hotel's Ethernet network is only as good as its hardware. Here, in ascending order of sophistication, are the devices an Ethernet uses: repeaters, hubs, bridges, routers, switches. A system that uses routers and hubs will not be as efficient as one that uses these plus switches. In short, it is not enough for a hotel salesperson to say the property offers Ethernet service. You need to know how it is provided.
- 10BaseT Ethernet: The most common; transmission speeds of up to 10 Mbps
- 100BaseT Ethernet: Also called Fast Ethernet; transmission speeds of up to 100 Mbps
- Gigabit Ethernet: Now seen in convention centers and the newest hotels; transmission speeds of up to 1,000 Mbps, or 1 Gigabit
This article is a distillation of the many insights generously shared with us by network experts.
Extra special thanks to Eric J. Scott, CEO, and John Wapstra, CTO, of Redmond, Wash.-based EventPoint Inc. Also thanks to the following individuals at Conference Planners, Burlingame, Calif.: CEO Con Chris Meyer; CIO Bob Harren; Ron Bushnell, information systems networking manager; and Ron Crook, director of marketing. And thanks to Tim Fielding, technology solutions manager, Gaylord Palms, Kissimmee, Fla.