March 23, 2006

BrainShare wrapup

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

SALT LAKE CITY -- BrainShare continued on Tuesday with training sessions, demos, an exhibit floor for Novell vendors, and a disco-themed after-hours party thrown by BrainShare sponsors.

On Tuesday, my second and final day at the show, I spent time talking to Novell customers and checking out the show floor to see what exhibitors were trying to sell to BrainShare attendees. I sat down for a few minutes with Gwava, a company that offers a slew of add-ons for Novell GroupWise. GroupWise offers email, calendaring, instant messaging, and so forth; Gwava has products that add anti-spam and anti-virus protection, reporting and monitoring, and other features that enterprise users might want.

One of the more interesting vendors that I spoke to was Fabric 7, a company that's selling AMD Opteron-based systems that can be partitioned into separate machines in hardware, rather than in software. For example, a Q80 system with eight Opteron CPUs can be carved into four hardware partitions to run four separate operating systems.

I also spent some time talking to a rep from Scalix, a company that offers email and calendaring for Linux. I thought it was a bit odd that they were exhibiting at BrainShare, since Scalix seemed to compete with GroupWise. The rep explained that they do compete with Novell in some cases, but that the Novell sales team would refer them for accounts where GroupWise might be overkill.

AMD and Oracle had a fairly large presence at the show at the front of the vendor hall, and a number of the usual suspects were there as well -- Hewlett-Packard, Dell, IBM, VMware, and many others. Intel was conspicuously absent. Microsoft was also, not surprisingly, absent -- and I don't think they even bothered to send a billboard truck to the show this year.

One thing that I heard over and over from vendors is that the "quality" of attendees, meaning people likely to spend money rather than gawkers just looking for swag, was better than comparable shows. Gwava, for example, indicated that they'd closed enough deals during the first two days of BrainShare to pay for their sponsorship package -- more than $200,000.

I noticed another indicator that the vendors were happy with the quality of attendees. At most shows, booth staff have perfected the badge scan and summary. I'm not talking about scanning the trade show badge to send spam, I'm referring to the quick glance at attendee badges to see whether the person behind the badge is worth talking to for potential sales. At most shows, as soon as booth staff see "Press" on the badge, they jump into hyper PR mode. The booth staff at BrainShare just seemed to assume I was a potential customer, until I informed them that I wasn't terribly likely to purchase their product -- but I might be interested in writing about it.

Given that Novell is being more aggressive about its Linux desktop product, SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED), I'll be interested to see whether any ISVs are present at next year's BrainShare with products focused on SLED. Right now, virtually all of Novell's partners on the show floor are focused on eDirectory, GroupWise, NetWare, and other non-Linux offerings. None of the vendors I spoke to offered products specifically for Novell Linux Desktop.

Market Start program

A fair number of the exhibitors at the show are part of Novell's Market Start program. Companies that are part of the program are given access to Novell's sales network and marketing assistance, and the company has announced it plans to introduce training based around products from Market Start companies.

All of the vendors involved in the program have products or services that revolve around open source, and fill gaps in Novell's own offerings. For example, Novell does not offer a Voice over IP (VoIP) solution, but Novacoast offers an Asterisk-based product called Voice RD, which is supposed to offer rapid deployment of VoIP -- as well as integration with Novell's eDirectory and identity management software.

I talked with the Market Start vendors about the program, and all of the vendors I spoke to seemed pleased with it, saying that they were getting good support from Novell and access to sales leads. It's a good idea, and it's one way that Novell might be able to expand its reach beyond traditional Novell customers.

Moving to Linux

The key question in my mind when attending BrainShare is how successful the company is going to be in retaining its installed customer base and moving them to Linux, while also picking up new business. From the conversations I had with Novell customers and ISVs, it looks like the company is doing a good job in hanging on to its installed base -- but Novell's customers still seem skittish about moving to Linux.

The vendors that I spoke to reaffirmed the notion that their customers were looking to stick with Novell, but were still in the early stages of moving to Linux -- though some are starting to see an uptick in Linux.

The good news is that I didn't find any customers who were interested in jumping ship for Microsoft Windows, and I did talk to several attendees who were ready to evaluate SLED with an eye to deploying it in their organizations -- though I didn't find any customers who had already moved or committed to moving a significant portion of their organization or business to a Linux desktop. I also heard a few complaints about Novell's subscription pricing, and that it wasn't terribly competitive with Microsoft licensing.

Novell will need to push fairly hard in the next few years to make its move to Linux successful. From what I've seen, all the technical pieces are in place or nearly so; everything else depends on whether Novell's marketing and sales folks can sell it.

Fun, games, and entertainment

BrainShare is at the top of the food chain when it comes to creature comforts. Attendees have full breakfast and lunch buffets at the show, as well as snack kiosks. The food is free, or at least part of the price of BrainShare attendance. Novell also provided pool tables and a small gaming area featuring World of Warcraft, Unreal Tournament 2004, and a few other popular games.

Attendees could enjoy a chair massage or sack out in a lounge area in front of a big screen television on massive beanbag-type cushions from LoveSac. The lounge area was full to capacity every time I walked by on Tuesday, every LoveSac occupied with an attendee napping or watching college basketball on the big screen.

Tuesday night was Sponsor Night at BrainShare. The vendor hall was decked out with one of the largest disco balls I've ever seen, and there were tables with all kinds of food, as well as an open bar. The vendor hall is actually not terribly busy during the day, since most of the attendees are busy in technical sessions, but it was crowded to capacity that evening.

Prior to arriving, I had expected that BrainShare would be a smaller event, since it was organized around a single vendor. However, the Salt Palace Convention Center is a pretty large venue, and Novell was taking up the entire space. It's worth noting, though, that the vendor area was spread out a bit more than your average trade show.

One pain point for attendees (and press) was that wireless access was spotty in the Salt Palace during the first two days of the show. On Monday, I tried to get on the network and -- rather than getting the free wireless network that we were supposed to have access to -- I received a login page for a paid wireless service with ridiculous rates.

Is BrainShare worth it?

I spent some time talking to attendees to see how whether they felt BrainShare was worth attending. None of the folks that I spoke to were unhappy with the conference overall, though I did hear one complaint several times -- namely, that sessions were being conducted by instructors who were not native English speakers, with accents that made sessions difficult to understand.

Given the diversity of Novell's workforce, it's not surprising that many of Novell's top engineers and trainers are not native English speakers, but the company should be aware of this and perhaps find a way to ensure that its instructors can present material in a clear fashion for the audience.

A smaller percentage of attendees noted that the some of the sessions were too rushed -- trying to cover too much material in too short a time. However, all of the attendees I spoke to were happy with the majority of sessions that they'd attended, so it would seem that the majority of sessions were in line with expectations.

The days are jam-packed with education. Sessions run from 9 a.m. on days without keynotes (and 11 a.m. on days with keynotes) until about 5:45 p.m., and cover everything from Linux application development, using SOAP/XML to develop for GroupWise, SUSE Linux performance tuning, and roadmap sessions for Novell products.

The other benefit to attending BrainShare is easy access to Novell engineers and executives. BrainShare is probably the only opportunity for most Novell users to run into Novell CEO Jack Messman and let him know, directly, what they think of Novell's product line and strategy.

The cost for attendees is $1,795, which includes breakfast, lunch, some after-hours receptions, and shuttles to and from the hotels near the Salt Palace -- but doesn't include a hotel room or airfare. To put that into perspective, LISA 2005 registration ran up to $3,150 for six days of training, and LinuxWorld registration can run up to $1,995 for the full package if you don't register early.

BrainShare will continue through Friday at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City.

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