WcW005: Four-Hundred-Thirty-One!

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Web Conferencing Week

Once again, real life events overtake sketchy plans. Isn’t life like that, though? (Now I’ll need to find the quotation about life being the thing that happens while you’re planning your life.)

Got lots of interesting clipjoints to share; got a professional conference in Boston to write up (for my boss, as well as for faithful reader).

But this is too good to pass by.

I do web conferencing. You’ve more than figured that out. As a grunt in a corporate IT department that supports various collaboration technologies for a global enterprise, technologies whose common bond is its vendor, IBM, I am the informal “manager” of the customer experience for our web conferencing and instant messaging tools, IBM Lotus Sametime.

As I’ve explained, in this role I teach the use of our tools eight to 10 times per month, having developed the courseware, and delivering the classes using the web conferencing tool. One learns while using it.

Another hat worn is that of electronic meeting facilitator. As in those only semi-irritating BASF advertisements, I don’t run the meetings, I provide the technological expertise so the meetings run better. And that’s the role I was playing today, when the routine suddenly became extraordinary.

Our diversified enterprise has a tentpole product, and much of the work I’ve done over the past three years has been in support of that product’s US field sales training organization.

Today’s meeting was not another in the regular series, but rather was put together rapidly over the past few days as a new strategic initiative needed to be launched right now!

Ordinarily two meetings are presented with identical content and presenters: one at 9am or so for the central and eastern time zones; the other at 4pm or so for the western half of the country. Demographics have caused the morning meetings to routinely be quite large for our technology, often in excess of 150 connections and sometimes 200 or more. The afternoon sessions are about one-third the size of the morning ones.

Now, put this in the perspective of the technology and our experience. First, the technology: Last week at our vendor sponsored conference, several of the technical experts supporting Sametime (including the wizard who helped write the original code before Lotus bought it) confirmed that one server is designed to handle 1,000 concurrent users, with no more than 200 in any one meeting.

Now, our experience: In a typical month with several thousand scheduled meetings, more than 20 separately connected participants (and of course, some connections may represent entire conference rooms of people, but we’re talking physical connections) in a meeting is good sized, and meetings of more than 100 connections occur only two or three times per month if that, one of them no doubt being that month’s tentpole field sales morning events.

The largest meeting I’ve ever seen, and without false modesty I can say with some degree of certainty that if I haven’t seen it directly, or consulted with clients about it, it probably didn’t happen, was a division’s “all hands” meeting a couple of years ago in which I noted 296 (global!) connections at the peak, a meeting which I ran and which as a result went smoothly.

Why the emphasis on the number of connections? Web conferencing is a particularly network sensitive application, and in our current version of the software, the responsiveness of the conference rests in great measure on the number of connections, and the quality of the network through which the connections are made.

So, today’s meeting, where in order to cover all the bases (much behind the scenes work with management required to launch this complex new initiative) someone decided that the meeting should not be duplicated, but rather the entire organization should gather at noon, to get everything started without time zone delay.

Frankly, I hadn’t paid much attention to the ramifications, but as the troops gathered in the small conference room from where we originated the “broadcast,” and the field started logging in, I began to be a bit excited, concerned but excited. 100 was passed; 200 went by; 300 and the concern started to overwhelm the excitement.

By the time the sales vice president kicked off the meeting a few minutes past noon, nearly 400 people were connected. Remember network sensitivity? These were field sales people connecting via broadband from home offices, or managers in small local offices connected to the enterprise network through a secured enterprise VPN (jargon alert: Virtual Private Network).

Then, as I was quietly marveling over the still growing size of the meeting, the dire message suddenly flashed on my screen (and of course on the big screen in the conference room to which my laptop was connected): Disconnected. With the vice president seated and emoting right next to me.

[I’ve indicated before that my technologist colleagues wouldn’t have my job for any compensation, due to this up front and personal exposure when things (inevitably) go wrong.]

As I routinely do in small less equipped conference rooms, I had set up a powered mini-Ethernet hub for the benefit of others in the room; I keep this mainly for my own use, when I have one connection and two computers. Today I had one computer, but going in I wasn’t certain if one of the sales organization functionaries in the room was also going to need a connection to our meeting, and two or three others had connected to the hub.

Anyway, this less than year old piece of plastic clothed electronics chose that precise moment to crap out. Remember Murphy’s law?

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Of course my first thought was that the meeting itself had been clobbered, that the server, which had experienced its first serious failure in over four months just the previous work day (during a class I was teaching that was truncated as one unhappy result), had died under the load.

No, it was the mini-hub; the meeting on the server itself, still growing, was fine, although without yours truly connected it wasn’t going anywhere, since one of the little details that can tip a meeting into the success column is that such a large meeting is locked for all but its Moderator. In other words, in a Moderated meeting, no one but the authenticated moderator can push any of the buttons to move the presentation slides. (For completists out there, the other choice is Collaboration, in which all connectors can push all of the buttons — a total no-no for a meeting larger than five.)

But at least the meeting was running. While the Veep vamped for a few moments, I pulled the network cable out of the back of the now worthless hub, plugged it directly into my laptop, performed the three-finger salute on Internet Explorer to kill it so I could restart a new instance (fortunately I didn’t have to reboot, a much lengthier process on my elderly laptop), and in a couple of tense minutes (it’s tough not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain when I’m sitting right at the conference table NEXT TO THE VP and everything going on on my PC is projected for all to see!) we were back in business. Whew.

From there it was nearly anticlimactic. In the end, I spotted 431 simultaneous connections at the peak, an absolutely stunning performance, 135 more than the previous record. Once my connection was restored, the meeting went smooth as glass, again because of network issues not always a given regardless of the number of connections. Amazing, and wonderful.

Now there are wonderful commercial alternatives out there, even for our internal people whose requirements don’t always fit the hammer I wield. But for this meeting alone, the capability of using our in house tool allowed my clients to save at least $2,500; in a billion dollar enterprise a drop in the bucket of course, but I’m a shareholder too.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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