‘Cloud computing’ is one of the buzziest of buzz words. For many businesses it can bring benefits and for those working in the events industry it is particularly useful, facilitating simpler and more efficient ways of working for teams which are often at different locations and constantly moving from site to site.

In essence all cloud computing means is accessing data and programs from a central, secure internet location rather than from a traditional office computing environment. What makes cloud computing more interesting is that the services are generally provided with great cross-platform (PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android, etc) support and a flexible pricing model (often free for the basic service). The concept is not new – many email services have operated in this way for years – but the move to storing all documents and applications online is more of a leap for users. So what are the benefits and potential issues:

Easy Sharing – Automatically share the latest versions of documents with whoever you decide. This could be internal teams or approved partners including suppliers and customers. This saves you from emailing out lots of updates which then get out of sync as others chip in. Some applications allow mutliple people to edit the content at once, providing a chat window to discuss changes as they happen. Services such as Dropbox, Box and SugarSync are popular and many also automatically keep a revision history.

Ubiquitous Access – A bonus of using a system based on the internet is your access point, be it your phone, tablet, laptop or friends PC can, assuming you have the appropriate credentials, access information. So if you find yourself completing a site visit with your phone in your pocket you can upload your photos and notes to a central system straight away instead of having to wait until you get home.

Scalable Software – Beyond documents and image sharing, software and applications can also be operated from the cloud. Event management tools, project management, expenses tracking, word processing and contract management are just some of the areas which have cloud hosted solutions. Accessing these systems from home, smartphones or tablet devices then becomes much simpler because devices only have to access information from one online location. Microsoft 360 for example is a full version of the Office suite and storage which immediately gives you the latest Office platform without having to remember to update whilst allowing you to access from whatever device you want.

Keeping it safe – Keeping information off site on a cloud server does have security implications which need to be considered. Highly private information should still be kept locally, but there is a trade off between security and accessability, especially when many people already store most of their information with a mail host online. When looking at cloud hosting you should consider the security they impliment and ensure it meets your requirements. Key aspects are ensuring that all information is transmitted encrypted (generally HTTPS) and most importantly ensuring people use strong passwords. It must be remembered that cloud systems are accessible by anyone on the internet so weak passwords (names, dictionary words, etc.) get cracked easily – it is essential the strong password rules are followed – non-dictionary words, upper & lower case, alpha and numeric characters and where the system allows special characters (!?*& etc.). Also the longer the better for passwords as some systems use the password to create the encryption key.

Connectivity – We all get used to having connectivity all the time and get frustrated when we lose connectivity but using cloud systems takes this to a new level as without connectivity most cloud systems cease to function at all. Also cloud systems will typically put more load on an internet connection as all activity is being synchronised across the network for all of the users. So fast and reliable connectivity is essential is you want to use cloud services.

Cloud computing continues to grow at a fast rate and has a role to play in many businesses and with the right planning it can lead to a far more productive team.

The statement above is the headline of an Inquirer story published on Monday 6th Feb based on information taken from a PDF distributed by London 2012 to help businesses prepare for the Olympics. The headline may be a bit sensationalist – ‘may cause internet access to be slow for some’ isn’t quite as eye-catching – but there are some valid points to take on board:

1. The main issue is the expected increase in volume of usage of the internet by locals and visitors alike. The problem though is not the internet itself (or more correctly the ‘backbone’ of high capacity links that form the network), it is the local broadband access via services like ADSL and cable which may become overloaded at exchanges and concentration points. Many of these services are based on a ‘contention ratio’, sometimes as high as 50:1, which relies on not everyone using their internet connection at the same time for good performance to be maintained. Business ADSL/SDSL services typically have a much lower contention ratio (around 10:1 or lower) and if you are relying on internet access during the Games it would be wise to check this for your provider. At events we operate at we typically only use services which have a 1:1 contention ratio to eliminate this risk. Services such as optic fibre and leased lines in general should also have a 1:1 ratio.

2. Exchange congestion is another concern as many broadband ADSL providers use BT infrastructure to provide their service. Again it can be the case that there is element of contention across the services leading to a slowdown. This area is harder to deal with but providers who are using an LLU (“Local Loop Unbundled”) service have more control over their capacity so should be able to manage performance better. Again at events we will always an LLU service wherever possible and in fact in many locations we do not traverse any BT infrastructure other than the ‘last mile’ copper pairs or fibre.

3. Site-to-Site internet links are a concern for businesses where they have multiple sites connected via a VPN (Virtual Private Network) which traverses the internet, as any general congestion will also impact their site to site links. This is a deeper technical discussion based on needs but one approach is what is known as an ‘MPLS network’ which routes data between sites without it going out onto the true public internet. This is generally only possible if the same connectivity provider is used at all locations (this is an approach we use for larger and more complex multi-site events) which can have significant benefits.

4. Home based or remote workers will be another challenge as it is expected that far more people will work from home during the Games and many companies do not have capacity for everyone to be connected remotely on a VPN at the same time. The issues above may apply to the home based or remote worker but in addition it is important that the central location has enough internet capacity and infrastructure to deal with all these additional users.

5. We all know what happens to mobile networks at a large event and the situation is expected to be similar during the Games. Yes lots of additional capacity will be put in place but there is only so much the mobile operators can do so it would be wise to assume there will be problems. In the events area it will be much safer to deploy a standalone phone system (VoIP/DECT) which will operate outside of the mobile network. Another aspect to consider is any ‘chip & pin’ payment terminals as many of these operate using the mobile GPRS network which may have issues during the Games. The alternative is Wi-Fi/IP based units which operate over an internet connection – assuming the issues above have been considered!

In summary, it is wise to examine internet provision at locations and at home if it is a critical service as there could well be impacts but with the right planning and service provision these issues can be minimised. For events organisers, especially those organising events in London during the Games period, it is very important that internet access is considered as soon as possible and the right level of provision is made – where in previous years a normal ADSL line has sufficed the risk this year may make it wise to change this to a businesss service which does not have contention issues.

If you are concerned about internet access provision and performance during the games then contact us at 2012@www.etherlive.co.uk

If you are attending the Event Production Show on Wednesday 1st and Thursday 2nd of February at Olympia you may be surprised to find Etherlive do not have a stand as in previous years. This year our approach to trade shows is different, evolving from feedback and activity undertaken during the last year.

In broad terms we are moving away from a traditional trade show approach (we will still be attending the Showman’s Show) to focus our efforts on more direct interaction with customers and potential customers – taking the form of involvement with forums and working groups such as the ESSA Wi-Fi Working Group, the HBAA Forum and the AIF. Alongside this we will continue to expand our own technology forum – The Gathering – to work with customers, suppliers and technology partners to understand, discuss and resolve the technology challenges important to event organisers, production managers and venues.

The reasoning behind this is simple, we strongly believe in partnering with customers and suppliers to deliver the best solutions for the industry and our investment in working directly and interactively with the industry delivers much more value to everyone involved rather than a simple ‘shop front’ approach at trade shows.

We will still be at the Event Production Show – we are chairing the Access Session ‘Plastic Passion’ around RFID/cashless payment technology and will be involved with the ESSA Wi-Fi forum. Etherlive people (Tom, Mike, Steve, Chris) will also be having a number of customer meetings at the show and if you would like to arrange an informal chat over coffee please do drop us an email at eps@www.etherlive.co.uk or send a tweet to @etherlive and we will arrange a time to meet up.

(l-r) WOMAD Festival Director Chris Smith discusses mobile coverage with O2’s Richard Owens, Etherlive’s Chris Green and Paul Pike from IVS

It’s been such a busy November that it’s only now that I have a had a chance to reflect on the Autumn Gathering. The day was split into two sessions with the morning focused on corporate events and conferences, and the afternoon structured around outdoor events and festivals. Below are some very brief notes covering a few of the topics discussed.

Connectivity & IT Support in Hotels & Venues

For conferences and product launches the IT needs are now typically a lot more than ‘a bit of Wi-Fi’. Quality Wi-Fi with appropriate capacity, dedicated streaming bandwidth, hook-ups for varying accreditation type systems and on-site technical support to deal with VPNs, bandwidth management and media support are all key aspects.

A concern raised by several attendees was the often inconsistent quality of connectivity in venues and their knowledge of how it works. This is an area we have been partnering with several venues on to deliver enhanced connectivity and the level of technical support that a conference or launch now needs. We have several case studies showing the cost of installing higher bandwidth and more robust infrastructure is rapidly recouped through increased revenue, this is particularly important for London venues hosting events in 2012. We are actively working with several groups to drive a better approach to conference & venue Wi-Fi, it is a more complex area though than it may look requiring extensive knowledge of how to deliver high density environments with the right equipment.

Information Security

Data security was a hot topic for corporate conferences, especially when people realised how insecure the often used short, simple passphrase approach is on Wi-Fi networks. The good news is that it’s an easy one to fix with a more complex passphrase or ideally a system which uses individual user names and passwords and enhanced encryption. Avoiding the use of the event or company name as the SSID/network name (or hiding it altogether) was also discussed as a way of avoiding unwanted attention.

It should now be the norm that networks are segregated into organiser, attendee, etc. and approaches such as client isolation are used to avoid unintentional sharing of information between connected users. A simple plain English guide to aspects such as the use of Https (secure websites), VPNs, encryption & authentication, solving typical problems with email when on a different network etc, was deemed a useful addition to the organisers toolkit and something that we are looking at producing.

Social Media

Social media split the room in two – those running internal conferences who were often frustrated that their IT department refused to sanction use of social media and those running product launches who used social media to the max. Lots was covered in this area, some of the key points were:

  • Social media like any channel requires a strategy
  • It takes time (1 hour per day was muted by several), you get out what you put in
  • Needs structure and tools (hash tags, TweetReach, Yazmo Live, Socialoomph, Thinkwall and hootsuite all came up)
  • Use live twitter feeds to ask questions to panel members and break down any barriers. Control and nurture back channels.
  • Schedule general content releases prior to the event so you can concentrate on the here and now tweets and comms during the live period. Have a calendar of teasers to pull people into the event.
  • Use of video is coming to the forefront and a general agreement that even low cost footage taken on a smart phone can achieve good results if it manages to capture a moment or a different angle.
  • It requires a working infrastructure at the event to be successful!

Smartphone Apps

This session started with a discussion on the hype around apps and comments that this was coming to an end with people now having to really question why they need an app and understand what the purpose is, with agreement that often a poor app can be more damaging than no app at all!

From there the discussion moved into ‘native apps’ versus ‘web apps’, like with many things there is no straight forward answer but there are some key differentiators:

  • Native apps can be designed to work without connectivity, with web apps this is nearly impossible
  • Web apps can be made cross-platform more easily and cost effectively
  • Web apps are on the whole easier to maintain
  • Native apps are more feature rich and can utilise more smartphone functionality (and hence look more slick)

Alongside this there were common operational aspects:

  • If you promote an app then the infrastructure needs to be able to support it
  • Content needs to be managed before and during the event. And afterwards if you want to maintain usage.
  • If the app is provided by someone else it will still be associated with your event so the quality is important

Mobile Phone Service

We’ve all been at events and got frustrated that the mobile phone service has collapsed under the sheer weight of users so not surprisingly this was a hotly discussed topic. Richard Owens from O2 did a great job in sharing examples of the scale of the challenges and explaining what O2 have been doing to try and address the problem. One great example came from the Royal Wedding where they actively moved capacity along the route of the Royal carriage to deal with the spike in photo uploads. Learnings from this are now being incorporated into a more automated approach across the O2 network.

For permanent venues additional capacity is a realistic option via adding more base stations around the venue, again an area O2 have already worked with several venues on. For temporary event sites the challenge is more complex due to the cost and complexity of temporary cell towers, however, options such as Wi-Fi offload and femtocells are becoming more practical.

The underlying message was one of the need for a partnership approach between events and mobile operators to deal with the issue as many events felt the bad experience of attendees did reflect to some degree on the event, and if nothing else made it difficult for organisers to run the event effectively.

Festival Comms & Public Wi-Fi

The change in expectations for festival comms over the last few years has been huge such that VoIP, internet, CCTV and Wi-Fi are the norm. The questions have moved onto how to deliver higher capacity connectivity and integrate services across a large site delivering coordinated gate scanning, real-time noise monitoring and PDQ ‘chip and pin’.

Public Wi-Fi access attracted a wide range of comment ranging from ‘festivals should be technology free’ to ‘how to monetise Wi-Fi’. Every event is different and it follows that approaches to public Wi-Fi will vary but it’s worth noting that the underlying thread is not really about public internet usage (although it is popular and has it’s uses for aspects such as travel, weather and news), it’s about the channel which is created between the event and the attendee providing an opportunity to deliver an extended festival experience. This may take the form of information updates, promotion of different events on site, access to exclusive content and the opportunity to enable social communities on site. It also provides a platform to deliver new services such as cashless payment, interactive apps and sponsor promotions.

As always the Gathering gave us a great opportunity to engage in discussion with those in the industry to really see what’s of interest and what the pain points are. The Gathering is a great focus point and hopefully leads to ongoing discussions to ensure the technology available meets the needs of organisers, promoters, production teams, suppliers and attendees.

Next week is Global Entrepreneurship Week an activity which has grown enormously over the last few years. In 2011 there will be some 40,000 events in 104 countries engaging somewhere in the region of 10 million people. Certainly ‘entrepreneurs’ are being highly popularised at present with programmes like The Apprentice, Dragon’s Den and The Secret Millionaire all playing a part. This is all great and there are some very inspirational people doing great things but I do get concerned that the image of entrepreneurs is all about creating huge multi-million pound businesses from scratch which, although a valid angle, is not the only route.

What I mean by this is that the common behaviours typically used to define entrepreneurs are just as important whether you set-up your own business, run someone else’s business or work pretty much anywhere within an organisation. To me it’s about vision, drive, passion, approach and execution; from identifying opportunities to creating value – all of which apply across the organisation, at all levels. One of our core values is innovation, working with our customers to drive continuous improvement, delivering new solutions and improving existing ones. Within that framework every employee is empowered to look for, and drive, ways to deliver more value for the customer and the company – this ranges from basic cost reduction to coming forward with ideas for entirely new services, products and markets.

Sparking the passion to do something great, different or better is part of what Global Entrepreneur Week is about so we have for many years done what we can to support activities around education and enterprise. This year we will again be running our hands-on Global Business Simulation for 120 pupils at a local school, an activity which aims to give a small insight into business for 13-14 year olds in an engaging and challenging way.

Alongside this we have been working with Bath University to support their Student Enterprise Shop Competition where groups of students get to create and sell a product of their choice for one day in the centre of Bath over a period of two weeks. This then feeds into a larger competition to develop the winning business further with mentoring from experienced business people which we will also be involved with.

Last week I also gave a talk at Bristol University to a group of students and budding entrepreneurs about our journey in creating a business – not the glitz of the television entrepreneurs but the real challenges for small businesses, the ups and downs and some honesty about what we did right and, more importantly, what we did wrong.

Although having a week focused on entrepreneurship is great it really only scratches the surface. We have been building on our existing activities to try and deliver some year round approaches. For example we have a very active summer placement and intern programme which we have now extended into working with Bristol University on a final year project, a project which encompasses both innovation and business aspects. The last piece is a relationship we have developed with the Bristol University Research & Enterprise Development Department to jointly develop a business idea with their Entrepreneur in Residence.

I guess the key point of what I’m saying is that we can all do our small bit to create the passion and inspiration for our future entrepreneurs, it’s not just for the people on the television programmes.

This week sees our 4th consecutive year exhibiting at the Showman’s Show. The show, at Newbury Showground on Wednesday 19th and Thursday 20th October, in a way marks a transition from the 2011 outdoor event season to the start of the 2012 season, although these days we see a variety of outdoor events year-round.

Etherlive ready for it's 4th Showmans Show

Etherlive prepares for its 4th Showmans Show

2012 in the UK is of course a bit of a one off with the Olympics and Paralympics occurring right at the peak of the outdoor event season. We are providing a number of services for Olympic related activity, such as all the IT, communications and broadcast provision for the London Media Centre, but we have been very careful to ensure this has no impact on our existing customers and their events.

What is important though is booking and planning for 2012, especially in London and other locations that will see Olympic activity. Provision of connectivity such as fibre and broadband services will see longer lead times due to sheer demand (we are ordering many services already so that they are provisioned very early next year). Transportation is another area which is impacted with requirements on suppliers to submit transport plans for London well in advance of events if they occur during the broad Olympic period. These aspects and others are all good topics for discussion at Showman’s if you are planning an event in 2012.

This year we are on Stand 71 of the indoor hall where we will be demonstrating a new generation of mobile VoIP handsets – allowing the freedom of a mobile phone with the cost advantages of VoIP. These units also couple up with an alarm and monitoring system providing a new level of integrated service for event organisers.

We will also be launching our latest innovation; Event Band, a suite of tools using RFID technology facilitating payment systems, loyalty services, accreditation and crew management. This technology will sit alongside the latest generation wireless chip & pin PDQs providing reliable payment methods for bars, merchants, exhibitors and ticketing.

The latest networked noise monitoring support offered by Etherlive will be on display, along with a demonstration of next generation satellite broadband, offering internet anywhere from the new KA band with higher internet speeds.

Alongside all the new products we will also have our core network, communications and CCTV technologies on display, solutions that have been used time and time again across a wide range of events connecting thousands of users. Outside we will also have one of our communications tower lights offering CCTV, Wi-Fi and public address as well as an economical lighting system. This can be found on the Aceplant stand (169) at the end of Avenue G.

Recently we announced that Etherlive has joined ESSA (Event Supplier and Services Association), alongside ongoing membership of the AIF (Association of Independent Festivals) and the ASAO (Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations). As well as actively participating in these organisations we also offer special services to fellow members.

We will have plenty of staff on hand to discuss event requirements and provide cost effective solutions to a broad range of connectivity, communications and other event IT needs.

 

Last week I had the opportunity to meet the Cambridge University Eco Racing (CUER) team thanks to Mark Green (no relation!) of Intel, one of their main sponsors. The event was held to officially launch their campaign for the 2011 World Solar Challenge. I found the team an uplifting example of what can be achieved with true enthusiasm and dedication for what they are attempting to do.

For those who have not come across the World Solar Challenge before, it is a race from Darwin to Adelaide in Australia, a distance of 3,000km across the outback, held every two years, where the vehicle has to be powered entirely by solar energy. If that wasn’t hard enough the race has to be completed in less than 50 hours! A battery is allowed but it is only allowed to store up to 5kW hours of energy, less than 10% of the theoretical energy requirement for the trip. There are also limits on the amount of solar cells which can be used.

CUER first competed in the 2009 event, managing 14th place out of 26 entries – an excellent first attempt, especially when you consider the team is made up of undergraduates and doesn’t have multi-million pound funding like many of these challenges and world record attempts you see in the press. For 2011 they have set their sight on a much higher position and to achieve this they have to overcome a number of hurdles. Firstly, as is typical with student activities, nearly all of the original 2009 team have graduated and moved on, so in many ways they are having to start afresh. Funding is also a big challenge, to the extent that they cannot afford to replace their 2009 entry “Endeavour” so instead they are having to modify it based on information from 2009 and subsequent testing and computer modelling (for which Intel provides a high power cluster environment).

“Endeavour MKII” however is an ingenious piece of work, with many tweaks and changes including significantly reducing the drag factor, changing the battery technology (which caused major problems in 2009), implementing a new car management information and control system, as well as improving overall safety and stability (a key point when you are in a small, light vehicle being passed by an Australian outback road-train!). With all of these changes they are confident the vehicle is up to challenging the more established teams and bringing in a much higher placing.

The core technology can only go so far though; strategy and approach is also key – do you use regenerative breaking which adds weight or work on the principle that you won’t be breaking very often? What do you do when you hit cloud cover – speed through as quickly as possible risking excessive battery drain or hold a steady pace? Even at the end of the racing day (each day must be finished by 5pm) there are precious sun rays that have to be maximised by tilting the car towards the sun.

CUER isn’t just about a race though, they have also created an outreach program for schools with a hands on exercise in building a working model solar racer to help educate pupils about solar energy and environmental travel. The launch event also saw the conclusion of a schools competition run by CUER to design a car of the future, a competition that generated some very thoughtful entries from over 200 entrants. The shortlisted entrants were all invited along to the event to see the car, tour the labs where the team are working on it and take part in a hands-on educational session.

What’s great about CUER is that it fullfils a number of things; it’s a fun and exciting challenge, it helps inspire younger pupils via the outreach programme and it delivers some real advances in terms of technology and design that you can realistically see being used in future vehicle design. Hat’s off to a great team and good luck in October!

You can follow CUER on Twitter and Facebook and look out for the launch of Endeavour MkII around July before it starts its journey to Australia in August.

Endeavour Mk1 soon to receive its makeover to become Endeavour MkII

 

‘Good news travels fast, bad news travels faster’ has never been a truer saying in the social world of retweets and ‘likes’. I wasn’t at Mobile World Congress this week but I did follow the stream of tweets originating from there. Amongst those tweets were comments about poor Wi-Fi coverage, I have no idea whether the Wi-Fi was poor or not but with a few negative comments bouncing around the ether it can quickly lead to the perception that another large conference has not taken it’s audiences desire to use mobile technology seriously – particularly damaging  when it’s a mobile technology conference!

The chances are it was a few people having localised problems with their devices but its another example of the damage that can be inflicted very quickly when attendees feel they are experiencing a poor service. Both Apple’s Steve Jobs and Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer have also experienced the pain of poor launch event Wi-Fi in the last year, with hundreds of press watching and commenting, and the result that the issues became a bigger headline than the product itself. So, what can you do to avoid the issues at your conference or launch?

1) Know your audience – What type of press is attending? What’s the demographic of the audience? You might think only tech events need technical services but many launches these days need high quality internet, for example London’s Fashion week had a huge amount of live blogging along with video streaming, posting of images and tweeting. Understanding these aspects is the starting point for working out what level of service is required.

2) Be realistic about capacity – Poor Wi-Fi will frustrate people more than no Wi-Fi, and good Wi-Fi with no sensible internet capacity is just as bad. Mobile data demand is growing exponentially but far too often the capacity required is under called. Budgets may be a challenge but often the problem is exasperated with last minute bookings which have a higher cost. Internet bandwidth is not something that should be an afterthought, it should be up towards the top of the requirements.

3) Work with social media – Working on the assumption that people who are tweeting and blogging will look after themselves is missing the opportunity to engage with a huge audience. People will tweet regardless so it is critical to get involved  to address comments. For example if someone tweets the Wi-Fi is bad, wouldn’t it be great to send a support engineer over to check everything is OK with their system? They are then far more likely to post a positive comment.

4) Offer a variety of options – Although Wi-Fi is great there will always be someone who has a problem getting connected, having somewhere for people to go and plug a cable in as a fall back creates a great impression. Couple that with support staff who understand the common issues around firewalls, VPNs, connection agents and drivers and the press will feel they are being catered for.

5) Partner with the venue – Don’t just accept that the venue provided Wi-Fi will work for you and your customers’ requirements, in the vast majority of cases this is not the case. Check they have dealt with a similar scale of event, understand how they intend to support users, question their capacity. High capacity Wi-Fi is a very different game to a typical casual usage Wi-Fi installation and many common wireless products are just not up to the job.

It may be a cliche that we ‘live in a connected world’ but we do, which is both powerful and dangerous, and most importantly is something that cannot be ignored if you want to maximise good exposure.