UKNOF 29 Tech Recce – Belfast

Assembly Buildings Belfast - Main Hall

The venue for UKNOF 29 and ISOC’s ION Belfast meeting to be held in September this year is currently looking like another great place for UKNOF to meet – it’s the Assembly Buildings, right in the middle of the city, easy to get to, and a good choice of hotels (from budget options such as Travelodge through to mid-range Jury’s Inn, and the higher end Europa and boutique Fitzwilliam) all less than 2 minutes’ walk away. There’s also some smashing restaurants and bars for the all important networking we come to do at UKNOF.

Don’t be put off by the theatre seating above – this was for the event occurring the next day – we’re looking at either cabaret or classroom seating for our event, there will be somewhere to put your laptops!

We decided on this venue not just because of it’s central location, but the high specification of the AV and technical support provided in house. The home of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the 109 year old building recently benefitted from a massive refurbishment, including a serious tech upgrade.

It has a Gig of bandwidth to the building. The UKNOF connectivity will use this as the transport to bring in our own Internet Access (over a tunnel) with no NAT and native IPv6, provided as usual by Tom at Portfast.

I recently visited to check this all works as anticipated, and it seems to work just fine. The tunnel to Portfast’s Docklands router came up just fine, and 80-90Mb (this being constrained by the router in use as the tunnel endpoint) was achieved with no issues.

The resident IT guys are super-helpful, and have even offered the use of their existing Aruba wifi platform for distributing the UKNOF wifi network in the building. If this works, it will mean that UKNOF doesn’t have to ship a load of access points out to the venue. Our testing revealed some limitations in the current Aruba setup, such as IPv6 RAs and ND apparently being blocked in the current config. Fixing this is on the list of things to do, as they don’t natively run v6 yet as part of their day to day operation so haven’t been concerned about it (until now).

We also need to investigate operating separate 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz wifi SSIDs, they are currently set up single SSID with bandsteering, so we may want to set up with specific radio heads as 5Ghz only.

This is all stuff to work on and resolve with their tech folks in the next few weeks.

Even if we decide we’d rather run our own access points because of the high client density at our meetings, this should be relatively simple and not require transporting lots of kit. The main hall can be covered by 4-6 access points, and there is plenty of structured cabling.

Assembly Buildings MixerAudio isn’t a problem. A rather nice Allen & Heath desk is permanently installed, and the standard rig includes plenty of radio handheld and lapel mics, and sidetone/foldback is provided for the presenter. On the day desk will be looked after by a professional sound engineer.

The venue even has it’s own permanently installed video system, comprising four HD pan-tilt-zoom cameras with video switching, that can provide an SDI out. Hopefully the folk over at Bogons who support UKNOF with webcasting can ingest this, and avoid having to bring their own camera.

If the big stage and stained glass window backdrop hasn’t scared you off yet, the Call for Presentations is open, and our regular Programme Committee has been strengthened by the addition of David Farrell from Tibus and Brian Nisbet of HEAnet for this meeting to help us find interesting local content.

The RIPE NCC will be holding their Basic and Advanced hands-on IPv6 training courses in the same venue (just a slightly smaller room!) on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of the same week.

We’re really looking forward to September, and welcoming Internet Operations folk from the whole of Ireland (both The North and The Republic), the UK mainland, and elsewhere to Belfast.

(It may even be the easiest UKNOF so far for the folk on the Isle of Man to get to?)

“Ambassador, with these Atlas probes, you’re really spoiling us…”

Okay. So I only expect the Brits to get the title of this. Though if you’re desperate to be in on the “joke”, watch this YouTube video of an old British TV ad for some chocolates.

One of the things I do for the community is act as a “RIPE Atlas Ambassador” – that’s someone who helps distribute RIPE Atlas internet measurement probes into the wider Internet community. The Measurements Community Builders at the RIPE NCC send me a box of Atlas probes, I go to conferences, meetings and other get togethers and I give them out to folk who would like to host a probe, along with answering any questions as best I can.

Recently, Fearghas McKay of the IX Scotland steering group asked me if I had any data from the Atlas project on internet round-trip time for probes located in Scotland, to get to services hosted in Scotland, and if I could talk about it at a meeting of IX Scotland participants.

This is a fairly similar exercise to the one I did for Northern Ireland.

One of the challenges I was faced with was the distinct lack of source data. Firstly, there weren’t that many Atlas probes in Scotland to begin with, and those which are there are mostly located in the “central belt” – around Glasgow and Edinburgh. The furthest North was a single probe in Aberdeen, and Scotland is a big country – it’s around 300 miles from the border at Gretna to Thurso, one of the most northerly towns on the Scottish mainland, as far again as it is from London to Gretna. That’s not even counting the Orkneys, Shetlands or Hebridean Islands, which have their own networking challenges.

The second problem was that of those probes, only three at the time were on an ISP connected directly to IX Scotland, and one of those was down! The majority were on consumer broadband providers such as BT and Virgin Media, which aren’t connected to many regional exchanges.

I saw attending the IX Scotland meeting as a good chance to redress the balance and extend the usefulness of the Atlas platform by distributing probes to networks which could improve the coverage.

This has resulted in what is currently the most Northerly probe in the UK being brought online in Dingwall, not far from Inverness, thanks to the folk at HighNet. They’ve also got a few other probes from me, so expect to see more in that area soon.

Most Northerly Probe in the UK
Most Northerly Probe in the UK

HighNet aren’t connected to IX Scotland yet, but maybe now they’ve got access to this instrumentation it might help them make a business case to follow up on that.

I also issued a number of probes at UKNOF in Manchester last week and I’m looking forward to seeing where they turn up.

I’d really like to get some of the community broadband projects in the UK instrumented, such as B4RN and Gigaclear. These bring some of their own challenges, such as issues with equipment at the customer premises that can actually handle the available bandwidth on the connection! It would also be great to be able to draw comparisons in performance between the community fibre service and the slower ADSL service provided over long copper tails in those areas.

Reflections on UKNOF 27

UKNOF 27 - Manchester Central
Our name in lights!

What a week it’s been!

My week started in Manchester, where it was the warm up for what turned out to be the largest UKNOF meeting so far – UKNOF 27. In this case the “warm up” was the IX Manchester meeting, facilitated by LINX (who operate IX Manchester).

This is, I think, the first time that UKNOF and one of the regional interest groups in the UK have teamed up and worked to co-locate their distinct, separate meetings on adjacent days in the same venue. It might have been a bit of an experiment, but I hope everyone agrees it was a successful one and we’re able to co-operate again this way some time in the future.

Talking of the venue… what a venue!

UKNOF attendance has been growing of late, and so to protect ourselves against ending up somewhere that couldn’t cope, we eventually chose Manchester Central Convention Complex.

I remember going to help scout the venues for this meeting earlier this year. We looked at various places, small and large. Remember that last time we were in the North West (back in 2010 thanks to the kindness of Zen Internet) only 65 people attended. Even the most recent non-London UKNOF in January 2013 couldn’t break the 100-barrier (and that was with Tref hosting!).

But, during 2013 we’d also had two bumper meetings at 15Hatfields in London and could see that we are definitely growing as a community, so we had to think big, and so we went with the venue that we felt could cope best with the unpredictability.

Initially, we were somewhat awestruck, maybe even a little bit nervous, when choosing a venue like this. It hosts massive conferences, trade shows and events. It’s a serious venue.

But we needn’t have worried, it turns out we’d made the right decision, and the space happily scaled up from a 60-odd person IX Manchester meeting to the 200+ person UKNOF the following day.

UKNOF 27 turned out to be our biggest meeting so far.

…and not in London!

We had over 250 people register. Around 25 cancelled their attendance in the week leading up to the meeting, and around a further 20 no-showed on the day. We’d ordered catering for 210, a good guess I think!

I’ve honestly not heard a bad comment about UKNOF 27. We had some fantastic, interesting and original content delivered by our speakers from within the community. I can’t thank them enough. Without them, without you, there is no UKNOF.

The audio and visual support seemed to work well, but we also learned a thing or two which will be brought to bear at future meetings. The Internet access was nice and stable: we brought our own wifi infrastructure for the meeting, and used Manchester Central’s great external connectivity to Metronet as a “backhaul”. 8 wireless access points were used to provide adequate coverage across the rooms, where most meetings previously got by on two. As usual, fantastic support from Tom at Portfast for the connectivity, and Brandon from for our webcast, along with Will and Kay who do connectivity for large events such as CCC who helped set up the additional access points.

Why was UKNOF 27 so successful?

Er, good question.

It was certainly a very easy venue to get to, regardless of how you wanted to get there. Plenty of parking space, easy access to public transport and an international airport just a short train ride away. Possibly even easier than a London venue?

Did the simple act of holding UKNOF in a serious venue such as Manchester Central raise the profile of the event with those who were sat on the fence?

There’s no doubt that the content itself was attractive, especially if (the lack of) bandwidth use was anything to go by.

The food offering from Manchester Central’s own in-house kitchens I thought to be superb, hope others agreed! All prepared from scratch in-house, even the biscuits for the coffee breaks, a definite cut-above a shipped-in offering. I felt you could taste the difference.

Maybe the co-location with the IX Manchester meeting meant that some folk stuck around for the extra day (and vice-versa)?

There seems to be renewed activity in the Internet engineering arena in the North of England at the moment – partly touched on by Mike Kelly’s participation in a panel at the meeting, discussing the relevance of regional infrastructure and it’s role in balancing the distorted London-centric infrastructure that has long characterised the UK’s Internet development…

…maybe there really are more Internet geeks in the North than the South these days?

Or if we’re going to have that level of influence, it’s just that our thrice-yearly get-together of Internet geeks is coming of age.

That said, I promise that we’ll stay true to our mission of “distribution of clue” and keep our focus on grass-roots Internet engineering and development.

Thanks to everyone who attended, sponsored, spoke, asked questions, or helped us in any way to make UKNOF 27 the success it was.

For those of you who enjoyed us being in Manchester, the good news is that we’re looking at a potential return there in 2015.

UKNOF: Openness and sponsorship

As some readers will know, I’m involved in running UKNOF – a series of regular meetings and a mailing list aimed at the UK Network Operations community. The next meeting is being held in London on 18th April, and we’re hoping it’s going to be one of the best attended UKNOF meetings we’ve had in a while.

The last few meetings in London have been so popular that we’ve outstripped the size of the venue that hosted the meeting, so this time we’ve gone for somewhere bigger still, which should allow us to go up to about 150-200 people. This is really important, as UKNOF is grounded in an ethos of openness, so having to turn people away really goes against the grain for us.

But accommodating every increasing numbers presents a challenge, because, best of all, there’s no charge to attend a UKNOF meeting. It’s paid for through the generosity of sponsors, and supported by individual volunteers from the community who put the meeting together.

For the upcoming UKNOF 25 meeting in April, we’ve already got a generous Platinum event sponsor in the shape of Ericsson, but so we’re able to maintain this momentum in the future, we’re working on building a supporting sponsor community.

There aren’t many conferences in our community which are run this way (free to attend) and open to all interested parties. They tend to be aimed at more specific communities (such as members of a particular IXP) or are invite only (such as the Network Field Day series). UKNOF is differentiated by it’s openness and transparent management.

The sponsorship of an open meeting such as UKNOF benefits the Network Ops industry in the UK by lowering the bar to attend, which has the effect that we get a broad audience from the community.

So, if a sponsor is ever thinking about helping UKNOF, think about how it fits in with your Corporate Social Responsibility goals.

We get people at UKNOF that simply wouldn’t have the budget (or get managerial permission) to attend the typical industry conference, which would have a registration fee in the hundreds of pounds, may need expensive overnight stays in flashy hotels, you get the gist. If a company is going to spend that sort of money on sending someone to an event, they are going to send their top bods, and not necessarily the guy at the coal face.

Yet the target of UKNOF isn’t just the experienced engineer who already knows it, it’s those who haven’t been around as long, those who are in a position to learn from those who’ve been around the block a couple of times – UKNOF’s main raison d’etre is often said to be “distribution of clue” – knowledge sharing and information exchange.

So we’re really glad that we don’t just get the “usual suspects” from the global Internet meeting circuit at UKNOF, but a real cross-section of the UK Net Ops community – we can use UKNOF to bring the best of the content (and well known speakers) from the global circuit to a UK audience that can’t get to the bigger meetings, and cover topics which are closer to home and of specific interest to the local community.

A table for 25? Not currying any favour with me…

Many of you will know that I’m involved in organising the UKNOF meetings.

Some of you will know that I don’t understand this obsession that many UKNOF attendees have with going en-masse for a curry (usually with someone’s employer picking up the tab) the evening beforehand.

What is the attraction, apart from maybe not having to pay for it yourself, of sitting at a big long table, when all it achieves is you having to yell at the person next to you in order to have a conversation while receiving iffy service of usually disappointing (sometimes downright poor) food?

It’s no good for mixing and networking, one of the attractions of going for dinner with industry colleagues, as you can only bellow your conversation at your immediate neighbours, either because everyone else is pissed and shouting, or just to make yourself heard over the loud sitar music.

Sitting in tables of 6-8 would help a lot with conversation, and probably improve service as well!

It’s also not a good dining experience. The most recent curry being a particular lowlight, when a) I hardly ate any of what I ordered because it was so unpleasant (and it wasn’t as though I’d ordered a phall!), and b) I was later unwell in the middle of the night. I should have seen the warning signs when they handed us each a sticky, laminated menu card, I guess.

While I don’t think of myself as entirely Grumpy Old Man as yet, I still don’t really see the attraction…

I also can’t talk about drunken behaviour in curry houses without a link to Rowan Atkinson’s Indian Restaurant sketch… It is a tricky bit of floor. Deceptively flat…

End of the line for buffers?

This could get confusing…The End of the Line by Alan Walker, licenced for reuse under the Creative Commons License

buffer (noun)

1. something or someone that helps protect from harm,

2. the protective metal parts at the front and back of a train or at the end of a track, that reduce damage if the train hits something,

3. a chemical that keeps a liquid from becoming more or less acidic

…or in this case, none of the above, because I’m referring to network buffers.

For a long time, larger and larger network buffers have been creeping into network equipment, with many equipment vendors telling us big buffers are necessary (and charging us handsomely for them), and various queue management strategies being developed over the years.

Now, with storage networks and clustering moving from specialised platforms such as fibre channel and infiniband to using ethernet and IP, and the transition to distributed clustering (aka “The cloud”), this wisdom is being challenged, not just by researchers, but operators and even equipment manufacturers.

The fact is, in lots of cases, it can often be better to let the higher level protocols in the end stations deal with network congestion rather than introduce variable congestion due to deep buffering and badly configured queueing in the network which attempts to mask the problem and confuses the congestion control behaviours built into the protocols.

So, it was interesting to find two articles in the same day with this as one of the themes.

Firstly, I was at the UKNOF meeting in London, where one of the talks was from a research working on the BufferBloat project, which is approaching the problem from the CPE end – looking at the affordable mass-market home router, or more specifically the software which runs on them and the buffer management therein.

Second thing I came across was a great blog post from technology blogger Greg Ferro’s Ethereal Mind – on his visit to innovative UK ethernet fabric switch startup Gnodal – who are doing some seriously cool stuff which removes buffer bloat from the network (as well as some other original ethernet fabric tech), which is really important for the data centre networking market with it’s latency and jitter sensitivity, which Gnodal are aiming at.

(Yes, I’m as excited as Greg about what the Gnodal guys are up to, as it’s really breaking the mould, and being developed in the UK, of course I’m likely to be a bit biased!)

Is the writing on the wall for super-deep buffers?

Freedom. Whatever that is…

So, as some folks will know, I recently left my employer of 11 years.

I felt it was time for a change, and time for a break – I’d been wanting to take a sabbatical for a few years now, but I realised that it was becoming less and less likely to happen soon – so I took the plunge.

When you take a big step like this, you find out a lot of things. Especially who your friends are – which I’m happy to say, seems to be most of you…

The plan from here is that I take between three to six months off full time employment, while at the same time keeping in touch with an industry I’ve been 110% involved in for the last 15 years. So I’m probably still going to crop up at industry meetings, and I’m still going to be involved in some of the voluntary work I do in the community, such as help run UKNOF meetings.

One of the things that was suggested to me as a way of keeping connected to the community is that I start blogging and writing about tech stuff…

Of course, I’ve always had an opinion on most things, so why not do what comes naturally!