BrainShare 2010

What is BrainShare?

BrainShare, Novell‘s annual expo in Salt Lake City, has been lauded as one of the premier technical conferences in the IT industry for more than 20 years. Over the years, it has grown both in numbers and scope, and had morphed to the point where it had become as famous for the over-the-top concerts (including Earth, Wind and Fire, Train, Huey Lewis and the News, and Styx) as for the technical content. In 2009, for the first time in the history of the event, Novell announced that they were canceling BrainShare, citing industry-wide budget tightening and a generally sluggish economy.

In response to that unprecedented decision, Novell formed a BrainShare advisory council, composed of company representatives, key vendors, and selected customers to consider how best to reformat and bring back the conference for 2010.

The transformation was nothing short of miraculous. They listened to the feedback, which overwhelmingly favored the technical excellence, and produced a reborn BrainShare conference that (to quote John Dragoon, SVP and CMO) went back to its roots as a technical conference for technical people. The result was arguably the best BrainShare I’ve attended, and this was my 13th. It was shorter (4 days instead of 5), more focused (less redundancy) and had minimal distractions (e.g. parties). The technical content was superb, with dozens of Advanced Technical Training (ATT) hands-on classes, 200+ product-focused technical sessions, and 20+ hands-on installation/migration labs.

What did I learn

Here are my key takeaways from BS 2010:

  • After 3+ years of stumbling with a premature release, ZENworks Configuration Management (ZCM) is finally ready for prime time with v10.2 (and the upcoming v10.3). Because implementation of ZCM is essentially a rip-and-replace of our very stable ZENworks Desktop Management v7 environment, I had been dragging my feet. Now, both the product and the migration tools have evolved so I’m ready to proceed.
  • Similarly, iFolder v3.8 has finally re-introduced the administrative controls that had been stripped when they moved from v2.1 (NetWare) to v3.x (Linux/Mono). The open-source community rejoiced that move, but the corporate community rebelled. Novell listened, and they have now released a version that is easily managed by policy, and involves an upgrade from the client side, rather than a cumbersome migration process.
  • ZENworks Application Virtualization (ZAV) has some very interesting real-world use cases. For instance, I can see the value of delivering IE6 to workstations running IE7 or IE8 (especially Vista or Windows 7, which won’t even run IE6), specifically for backwards compatibility with old web apps.
  • In the Futures department, I was most excited by Novell’s Cloud Security Service. This product features Single Sign-on and Provisioning (and more importantly, De-Provisioning) for all of our Cloud (SaaS) applications from one console, using our existing LDAP directory. We already have at least five SaaS services in our enterprise (with more to come), each with different credentials and identity management – in some cases, I don’t even know who handles them. This would pull them all together into our current identity management process.
  • I would love to bring up Teaming and begin generating some grass roots interest. And I’ll do just that with the free 20-user Starter Pack license that Novell is offering. But I’m not sure it will go much farther than that because of the pricing. Hey Novell, Teaming costs too much.
  • I don’t ‘get’ Pulse. But I don’t ‘get’ Google Wave either, and I didn’t ‘get’ Facebook until just over a year ago. I imagine that I will eventually begin to understand Google Wave (as it evolves), and when that happens, I’ll be glad that Pulse is around to provide a secure corporate integration with Wave.

No, it wasn’t just a total geek-fest

In addition to the technical excellence, the evening events were still fun, just not as numerous or crazily as over-the-top as previous years.

  • Upon arrival on Sunday night, I headed over to the Gateway Theater for GWAVA‘s annual private movie for the GroupWise community. This year was The Bounty Hunter – a cute chick flick with just enough humor and action to make it fun for the guys too.
  • Monday night was a fundraiser party for Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA). They have had smaller benefit functions at two previous BrainShares, but this one was conference-wide and featured a decent rock-and-roll cover band. Through tattoo parlors (temp, of course), photo booths, shirt sales, and an HP NetBook raffle, they raised over $25,000 for their cause from the participants. In addition, Novell threw in a donation for $10,000 at the end.
  • Tuesday was vendor night. In previous years, this has been a total geek-frenzy best avoided by the sane, with 5000+ attendees fighting tooth-and-nail for the last t-shirt or the most insignificant piece of throwaway SWAG. But this year, it was a much more subdued opportunity to actually talk to the vendors about their products without having to miss any of the technical sessions during the day.
  • Wednesday was IT Tech Talk, or as it was more-often called, The Event Formerly Known As Meet The Experts. At this feature event, attendees get to speak directly to the development teams and other product engineers about individual products, both current and future. As with vendor night, this opportunity is available all week, but this event adds value because it doesn’t conflict with other training.

SWAG Report

Even a scaled-back BrainShare would not be complete without toting home a suitcase full of SWAG (Stuff We All Get). I long ago learned to pack an empty (and strong) duffle in my suitcase, so I can fill it with SWAG and check it on the way home. Fortunately, 2 bags fly free on Southwest, so that is still a legitimate (and necessary) strategy. Here is the final inventory of my SWAG (and pseudo-SWAG) haul:

True SWAG (things I didn’t buy, earn, or win):

  • 3 fleece jackets, 15 T-shirts, 2 ball caps
  • 4 thumb drives (totaling 9 gb) containing various product demos and evals, 3 mini-mice, 2 USB VOIP handsets with integrated sound cards
  • Over a dozen pens, several hand-squeezy things, and various and sundry other things to clutter my desk
  • Over an inch of vendor collateral materials and demo CDs

Pseudo-SWAG (things I earned or won):

  • Nikon Coolpix 10mp camera kit (with 2gb memory card)
  • ZCM v10 Self-Study kit (included with registration)

In addition, I had to find room for the following Non-SWAG items: 8 additional T-shirts (on sale or fund-raisers for BACA), 4 technical books (all half-price), 1 windbreaker and 1 long-sleeve shirt (both half-price).

Conclusion

I went to Salt Lake City this year wondering if this would be the final BrainShare. After all, they had canceled last year, this year was an untested new format, and just to make it even more iffy, Novell had recently received (and rejected) an unsolicited buy-out offer from their majority shareholder, Elliott Associates.

I came home with renewed confidence in both the quality, vision, and future of Novell and their products, and I am now looking forward to BrainShare 2011.

Well done, Novell – kudos to John Dragoon and Mike Morgan and the rest of the BrainShare staff, as well as the development teams who are putting together such great products.

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