Arena show now more like a club act

Gordon Stitt, president and chief executive officer of Extreme Networks Inc., put the best possible face on the networking industry downturn in a Networld+Interop keynote address in Las Vegas on Wednesday morning. A slump is a good time for looking beyond small improvements for immediate needs and contemplating the fundamental advances that need to take place in technology, he said.

The quiet, almost professorial talk, free of pitches for any specific product, "architecture" or "framework," was appropriate to the setting: a hall in the Las Vegas Convention Center with chairs set up only halfway across the floor. For a major trade show keynote, it was downright intimate. The same could almost be said for this year's Networld+Interop as a whole.

The show, also called N+I, is now in its 17th year and historically has been the premier event for enterprise networking. But along with the network equipment business and the rest of the IT industry, it's changed dramatically in recent years. Most significantly, organizer Key3Media Group Inc., which filed for bankruptcy protection in February, has eliminated the annual fall N+I show that took place in Atlanta.

Key3Media estimates that attendance at this week's event, which began Tuesday and runs through Thursday, is about 70 percent of last year's turnout of 40,283. More striking, it occupies only about 150,000 square feet of floor space, less than half last year's 320,000 square feet. Some of the most jarring signs for N+I veterans are in the Hilton Center and Pavilions at the Las Vegas Hilton, adjacent to the convention center, where N+I keynotes and associated meetings have been held in years past. The signs read, " Multi-Housing World." The Hilton rooms were taken up by an annual show for the multifamily housing industry. Once-mighty N+I, it seems, is just one show among many in this convention mecca.

"This economy isn't recovering as fast as they say it is. Just look around here," said Douglas Chinault, network engineer at Polk Computer Consultants, in Lake Alfred, Florida, as he left Stitt's keynote. Chinault took a less optimistic view than did Stitt of the recession's possible technology windfall, though he's already benefitting from one emerging technology. His company is setting up an IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN to connect four citrus packing plants to a centralized sales team. Sales representatives need current information from the plants because they often sell the fruit as it's being packed, and the current frame relay system produces a 15-minute delay, he said. Polk will use a long-distance antenna mounted on a tower to reach the packing plants, all of which are located along one road and will not be more than six miles from the antenna.

Wireless LANs have been a recurring theme at the show, which hasn't been lacking for vendors announcing new products. Other major themes include network security, VoIP (voice over IP) and 10-Gigabit Ethernet.

What's more, depending on what you're after, bigger isn't necessarily better.

"The shrinkage of the show concerns me, but it's easier to cover," said Bob Elliott, manager of information systems at RCS Communications Group, a two-way radio reseller and service provider in Louisville, Kentucky. Elliott plans to link 900MHz two-way radio towers in Kentucky into a meshed network to offer dispatch users such as plumbing companies a wider coverage area. The network could also be used for data and its services eventually offered to general enterprises, he added.

Like Stitt, Elliott sees the economic lull as a great time to work through technology challenges so he's ready to take advantage of an eventual economic recovery.

"His speech is exactly where we are right now," Elliott said.

If the show is smaller this year, at least it looks a little busier. Even with far fewer exhibitors -- 275, down from last year's 572 -- the tighter floor space has led to smaller booths and less wide-open space than at the 2002 event, when attendance had slumped dramatically from 61,000 registrants in 2001. Jugglers, dancers and other booth entertainers from the go-go days of the late 1990s could have practiced their routines on all the empty carpeting last year.

Watching Stitt's keynote, all the empty carpet was behind the crowd clustered around the stage. Most everyone here hopes what it represents is behind them, too.

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