Sunday evening, April 26, 1998, 6:30 p.m., Hall C, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center: My badge has been smilingly but carefully scrutinized by a pleasant young woman wearing a red CA World golf shirt and khakis, and I've just been waved into the press section of the CA World '98 opening keynote session. For some reason, there's a smoke machine at work down in front. The haze rising toward the lighting rig above the stage, along with the synth music pulsing in the background, is momentarily disorienting: Who are we waiting for? Bonnie Raitt? That can't be right, she's headlining at Jazz Fest across town. Wrong venue.No, we're waiting for Charles. That's Charles B. Wang, chairman and CEO of Computer Associates International, the Islandia, N.Y.-based juggernaut of the enterprise management software world--but call him Charles. Everyone does. As in "Charles charged us with organizing this meeting" and "Charles doesn't want to see any empty seats at the press conference."

Sitting to my right is a reporter from a Polish computer magazine. To my left and in front of me are a mix of American and Italian journalists who all seem to know each other and are conversing in techno-jargon in two languages at once. But right now, the 200 CA World ushers are seating the last of 12,500 invited guests (there are more in a spillover hall next door), the TV cameras are panning the audience, and it looks like Charles will be coming out very soon . .

We Had to Build a Network "We started laying the fiber-optic cable network in 1995," says Gary Quinn, CA's senior vice president for global information systems. "That was the first year we came to New Orleans--we're here now because back then they were able to accommodate 10,000 attendees on short notice in mid-July--and we realized we really couldn't just bring a mainframe to the conference. So we had to build a network." All told, CA and the Morial in a joint effort have installed more than half a million linear feet of what Greg Guillot, MIS director for the Morial, calls "big pipe connectivity" cable in the past three years, enough to wire the Morial Convention Center from end to end and also connect to 41 hotels in the city.

"Over the last three years we have helped the convention center develop a design and implemented the wiring and communications closet [locations for switches and routers] configurations. We've been doing the same thing with the hotels in that we wire additional hotel rooms each year. They wire some as well." Quinn praises the Morial Center's MIS staff for their desire to learn, and to start taking the initiative on networking issues. The convention center estimates the value of the permanent installation at $4.5 million. "We provide communications connections right into the booths," says Quinn. "It helps us, and it helps the Morial, too--they don't have to deal with exhibitor requests for things like network drops--we've provided all of that."

In fact, what CA has done is installed an extranet--a stand-alone network that provides exhibitors with connections to the Internet, lets them run their applications with those of other vendors at the show, and connects them directly to CA World's Web site. The extranet will come down at the end of the conference, but much of the fiber-optic network will stay.

"We leave behind the actual fiber strands that are connecting the convention center itself with the show floor as well as communications between the meeting rooms in the convention center," says Quinn.

"Installing the communications network is the key," says Quinn. "It means we don't have to bring as much stuff down from New York. This year, we're even letting our vendors get on our private network. It's risky, because there could be security problems. But our clients were asking us why, if they were such good partners, they couldn't show CA products on the workstations in their booths. So we're doing it. We have a firewall, but it still makes you a little nervous."

There's a little stage set off from the main stage, and a guy with his hair in dreadlocks is standing on it now, plugging in a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. A scrim rises--and there is a string orchestra, complete with conductor, and . . . can it be? . . . a choir, yes, a dozen or so young men and women in black tie . . . the conductor lifts the baton, and the orchestra plays, the choir sings, and a guy in the garb of an Australian aborigine is walking out from the wings playing a didgeridoo . . . and there's a small Japanese orchestra off to the right . . . and now folks in ethnic costume of every conceivable type are dancing . . . the guy with the Strat is wailing away . . . the choir is singing about how we can all do our own thing, but we sound so great when we all sing the same song . . . and here, at last, comes Charles.

Preparing for 25,000 "No, we didn't choreograph Charles' keynote," says Ed Markowitz, vice president of marketing and the keeper of the CA World '98 Big Picture. "We work with a production company, Williams Gerard out of Chicago. They've been with us for four years. Things like the kickoff intro, with the orchestra and choreography, we leave to them."

The production company is one of the few outside vendors Markowitz uses for CA World. "I outsource the conference brochure; we're not in the printing business," he says. "But 99 percent of what we do is handled in-house. I have a staff of 16; we do the planning, create the planning documents, handle exhibitor sales, and so on; then we reach out to the different departments of CA to help us execute, including Corporate Events, which handles housing and F&B, and Global Information Technology, Gary Quinn's group, which handles the conference management network."

How does one prepare for 25,000 visitors, especially when 447,000 visitors (including locals) are descending on a jazz festival at the same time? "We bring 35 people in for a site inspection about 11 months ahead of the event," says Markowitz. "They divide into teams that look at hotels, the convention center, the tele-communications, and at conference development issues. We work out how we're going to deploy 13 T1 lines, 180 PCs, and the network servers that connect us to the rest of the world."

Markowitz also reaches out to CA's business partners. For example: Every bit of presentation equipment is set up at the company's Long Island headquarters a month before the show. "We load all the software, and plug everything in to make sure it works," says Markowitz. "Then, with the help of our partner Symbol Technologies (makers of bar code scanning devices), we bar code everything so when it arrives in New Orleans we can take inventory immediately and also direct packages to exactly where they're supposed to go--at the convention center or any of the hotels." ADP Productions, CA's audiovisual supplier, actually parks a 40-foot trailer full of backup equipment on the convention center floor, just in case.

Charles has taken the stage. He looks behind him at the orchestra, chorus, and dancers, then turns back and says, "We do weddings and bar mitzvahs, too." There's a chuckle from the audience. Charles may not be ready to replace Jay Leno, but he is clearly very comfortable in the spotlight. And he knows how to build interest: "And as you all know, my friend Bill Gates will be coming tomorrow. We felt that fair is fair. Given that Scott McNealy [CEO of Sun Microsystems] was here last year with some definite opinions about Microsoft, Bill's entitled to a rebuttal."

5,000 Nodes "The business purpose of CA World is to protect the client's investment in technology; to educate them about our products, certify them--if need be; and give them hands-on experience with our technology," says Markowitz. "It's also an opportunity for our clients to network; to see how others solve problems. That's why we have so many special interest group sessions and birds-of-a-feather meetings." In fact, there are more than 3,000 technical conferences all told--with as many as 300 going on at any one time.

CA World has 300 exhibitors, all demonstrating how their products work with CA's software. The exhibitor directory reads like a who's who of the industry: IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, Fujitsu, Netscape, Intergraph, NCR, Tandem. In the main hall, dubbed the World Resource Center, there are more than 5,000 nodes connecting CA and exhibitors' workstations, printers, and peripherals, spread over six acres. It is the largest computing infrastructure in New Orleans--bigger than the biggest local bank's network, bigger than anything else in town.

More than half of CA's 11,000 employees are here, so there is a call center installed. "Basically, we've brought a whole bunch of permanent staff down from New York and set them up to continue running the company's day-to-day activities from the convention center," says Quinn.

No Reason to Leave "We don't want anyone to have a reason to leave the hall," says Markowitz, pointing out a network of rooms that have been created off to the side of the World Resource Center. "That's why this area has been sectioned off for exhibitor hospitality events. And we feed everybody--that's why the cafe in the main hallway is closed. It opens in the evening for user group hospitality events." There is also an international visitors service center here staffed by multilingual CA representatives to assist the thousands of clients who are here from Europe, Asia, and South America. Markowitz's team has built a small musical theater called Solution Street inside the World Resource Center, where a short, jazz-based theatrical performance introduces clients to the basics of CA's various software offerings.

Charles is talking about Ritz-Carlton hotels. A friend of his stays at one, and asks that a bottle of wine, Opus One, be sent up. Later, he stays in another one, and there's a bottle of Opus One waiting for him in his room. "Now, some of you would say that this is a minor thing--an easy thing to do with technology, but that's my point. Technology plays an enabling role here, but the critical element is the sensitivity with which Ritz-Carlton hires and trains its own staff." This can't be a product placement; Charles makes nearly as much money as Bill Gates . . .

Thinking Out of the Box With 1,600 staff, 41 hotels, a network with 5,000 nodes, and 3,000 sessions, thinking big requires thinking big about control. And that is why the most impressive part of CA World is not open to public view. It's the management system room, a large air-conditioned cubicle near the back of the convention center. A dozen CA technical types watch a couple dozen screens running the company's Unicenter TNG. This is a network monitoring system whose most amazing feature is a detailed graphical user interface.

The tech guys put on a show for visitors: They put up a picture of a spinning globe on the screen. They click on the United States, and a map of the country replaces the globe. They click on Louisiana, they click on New Orleans, and by now there is enough detail to see the various nodes of the CA network. They click on a hotel, then on a hotel meeting room. They can see which workstations in the room are on. Now that is "drilling down for information." In fact, explains Quinn, the system can predict when a problem is going to occur, so the technicians can either try to prevent it or work on dealing with its consequences.

It's All About Content So many events, so much technology. What's it all mean? "At the end of the day, it's all about content," says Markowitz. "We bring together 250 CA people and send them out around the world to talk to clients about what they want to see at the conference." From there, Mark-owitz's group begins to outline a program, find speakers, and eventually start working on logistics. With something this big, how on earth do you measure return on investment? "With great difficulty," says Markowitz, smiling. "If the clients have a good experience during the week, we've done our job. If they do have a good experience, they'll take that back to their clients and talk about what we're doing, and what they can do through us to be successful."

On Tuesday evening, back home, I turn on PBS's Nightly Business Report. And there's Charles! Live from CA World! "Compaq will have the Unicenter TNG framework on its network servers . . . this is a tremendous endorsement on their part . . ."