December 10, 2003

IEEE networking conferences turn to Linux as network OS

Author: JT Smith

At first glance this might look like a "press release turned into a story" article since it started with an announcement by I.D.E.A.L. Technology of Orlando, Florida. But how and why I.D.E.A.L. vice presidents Anthony Awtrey and Jordan Jacobs brought in a contract to provide wireless (and wired) networking services to the IEEE Project 802 Standards Committee and Wireless Working Groups should serve as a lesson to Linux solution providers all over the world, especially in light of the fact that IEEE -- the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers -- was getting free Microsoft-based wireless (and wired) networking products, but decided it was better to pay for Linux-based networking because it worked better.First, note that the IEEE Project 802 Standards Committee holds many conferences every year, all over the world, with anywhere from 100 to over 1500 attendees, so this is not a small-time deal. Second, note that at IEEE standards conferences computer networking -- especially wireless -- isn't the mere convenience it might be at Comdex or LinuxWorld, but is essential to the business of jointly writing and editing the technical papers and standard-setting documents these conference exist to produce. And third, note that the body charged with setting networking standards is going to be as finicky a customer for a computer and networking service company as you're ever likely to find.

Not an instant deal

This wasn't a case where the I.D.E.A.L. guys walked in the door, made a killer presentation, and walked out with a big contract. Rather, says Jacobs, some of the IEEE folks "invited us to come out to one of the shows and make a presentation. We convinced them to let us try to support them at one of the shows."

Note "one of the shows." Just one.

But, recalls Jacobs, that show gave them a great opportunity to strut their stuff. Half of the networking equipment didn't show up as promised, so Anthony (Awtrey; Jacobs' fellow I.D.E.A.L. v.p.) configured his (Linux) laptop on the spot, and used it as a network gateway. He even set up VPNs for people who needed them."

Because of this impromptu display of networking artfulness, says Jacobs, "They got confidence that we knew what we were doing."

Anthony Awtrey

So I.D.E.A.L. provided networking for another show, and another, and another. And, according to Jacobs, instead of the previous typical pattern at IEEE 802 Standards conferences, where the network usually wouldn't be up and running until the show had been going on for at least a couple of days, I.D.E.A.L. always had the network up and running within a few hours.

At one show I.D.E.A.L. had another opportunity to turn in a "star" performance when a worm suddenly infected the network. "With up to 1500 people (attending an event)," Jacobs notes, "someone is bound to be infected." But with Linux servers running things, everything kept working; the the only effect on the network was a major slowdown because of the worm's huge bandwidth consumption.

But even this problem did not last long, says Jacobs. "Anthony found the worm that a few people had on the network, rapidly identified the culprits by MAC address, and shut them down."

(Now I.D.E.A.L. is working on a utility that will automagically remove infected machines from the network and -- this is the innovative part -- put a message on the infected machine's screen telling its owner to contact a network administrator for help getting rid of the worm or virus and restoring service. This has the potential to become a 'must have' piece of software for public WiFi providers, which certainly makes it a nice potential addition to I.D.E.A.L.'s bottom line.)

Developing a customer relationship one job at a time

I.D.E.A.L. got conference job after conference job from the IEEE network standards crowd, but it was all still on an ad hoc basis. "We did a lot of shows, one at a time, by handshake," Jacobs says.

Many show networking requests were made at the last minute, too, he says, which was stressful for I.D.E.A.L. people, but such is life in the world of the small software service business, especially when you're trying to show a potentially major customer how well you can serve them.

Now, of course, with a multi-year contract (reputedly worth at least $700,000) to provide networking services at IEEE 802 Standards events, the last minute schedule-ruining calls are a thing of the past.

But note: It took many months and and sterling service, provided over and over, to get that big-money deal signed.

I.D.E.A.L. is a small company, and providing the level of service they gave IEEE's 802 Standards Group before they had a firm contract in place took a huge personal toll on their staff. "We have been tired all the time for the last year, Jacobs says. "Sometimes working seven days a week, long hours...."

A case where Windows is free and Linux isn't

This, to Jacobs-the-Linux-advocate, is the big point he wants to pass on to other Linux and open source providers: That although Microsoft is a major member of the Project 802 Standards Committee, and before I.D.E.A.L. came along Microsoft was providing networking servers free of charge, the organization still chose a Linux company to manage all its event networking because it offered more reliable service.

Maybe Linux isn't the only thing that swayed the IEEE folks. Only partly in jest, Jacobs says, "We are studs!" when asked why they were chosen for this contract over all other potential providers, especially since I.D.E.A.L. isn't exactly a household name outside of several very small Department of Defense research-oriented contract niches where, until now, the company has earned most of its revenue.

But be that as it may. A combination of Linux, open source software correctly configured, and hard work by knowledgeable Linux people, has once again proved to be a winner against stiff competition -- even though no one said, "Linux is free and Windows isn't," at any point in the contract negotiation process.

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