So What IS it Really Like to be a Lab Captain for VMWorld???

 

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I have recently completed one of the most difficult (yet rewarding) portions of work that I have ever been challenged with at my 6 year tenure at VMware. That is, serving as a Lab Captain for the VMWorld Hands-On-Labs at both the US & European conferences as well as the recent Partner Exchange (PEX) event in Las Vegas. As many of you have read in Aaron’s recent post “The Layer between the Layers”, like him, I was also asked to specifically captain and write a section of a vFabric Lab for the HOL at both VMWorld events in Las Vegas and Copenhagen and at PEX. There are 27 Lab Captains for the US and an equal number for the EMEA show, plus a larger number of Proctors for both. As a “generalist” SE (i.e. NOT a specialist in vFabric or even an SME – Subject Matter Expert), I was appropriately intimidated to Captain a topic I was not an SME in, so I was looking for any vFabric Specialist help I could get! Fortunately, I was paired with a great colleague, Chris Harris, who was a vFabric Consultant in the UK.

Since this was so much a part of my life for the past 10 months, I wanted to give you all a taste of what this preparation process entailed. If for no other reason that to help me to decompress from the massive amount of creative work that we went through to prep for VMWorld 2011, but also to give the reader a flavor for the process of what it takes to stand up the HOL from a content perspective.

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So let’s start with the content definition and pre-work. We had a plan to construct content around a “real-world’ customer implementation of VMware technology, rather than product centric demo names and examples. I personally thought this to be a double sword of opportunity. We could communicate to customers the “scenario” of how and why VMware can supply a solution to a specific problem, but I thought many attendees might be confused with “NO PRODUCT NAMES” in the scenarios. I agree that we need to avoid product sell in a technical lab environment, but we also need to inform our attendees in a bit more detail on the products that they will be concentrating on in the individual labs. (BTW, we are changing this next year…)

That aside, the labs this year continued to make great advances in not only the technical demo aspects, but also business application illustration examples as well. I am always amazed at the ability of the Core Team to adapt to the constantly changing, massively dynamic virtual workload demands of the lab (while using alpha and beta “dogfood” builds to equip the lab) in a “live-fire” environment. After working in the labs over the past several years, I think this is THE example environment that represents the “most extreme” examples of virtualization “stretch” in our customer base.  By that I mean that the problems we face using cutting edge technologies, the latest beta (and sometimes alpha) code, and the massive workloads being generated and managed, are extraordinarily challenging (and really fun!…mostly…) J.  Never let it be said that PCOIP does not work over the WAN…we ran an entire portion of the lab from Las Vegas in Copenhagen, and everyone thought it was local! So overall, we are often breaking new ground and demonstrating what can be “virtually” achieved in a very intense and verifiable lab environment.

Again, that aside, the HOL environment, is one that we begin building months in advance of the events, and as most are aware, it is based on vCloud Director in a vPOD based model. The Captains start with the Lab Manual Build out back at the beginning of May. This is essentially a storyboard of the lab scenario that reflects the business problem and possible solutions and products required to solve that problem. We used a product called Screensteps to create the content and allow easy editing of the screenshots we needed to include into the manuals. We create a Lab Abstract Template, vPOD Configuration docs, and Visio diagrams of exactly what we need to include into each Lab Pod from an infrastructure and product perspective, build the base vPODs in our own vCloud orgs, and then turn those designs and completed vPODs over to the HOL Core Team for virtual build out to the WW Cloud. The overall idea is that once the vPOD is built and deployed into the various cloud DCs, it will be called up from the catalog by each lab participant “on-demand” and we actually create and deploy the lab in real-time (with some pre-population of the most popular labs). Once completed, the lab is “destroyed” and compute resources are returned to the pools. We complete this process literally 100,000-150,000 times during the week of VMWorld.

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As you can see by the timeline below, we were under VERY tight time targets and each milestone counted!

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Once the various drafts of the content for the manuals are completed and reviewed by the content leads, we then lock them in for lab manual build out and completion. Since we are often using alpha and beta versions of many new, or unannounced products for kickoff at VMWorld, it can be a bit dicey on build out, since we are also logging bug reports in the early code development and adjusting manuals to describe any workarounds needed to complete the lab. It is great that we have the chance to see these new products so early in development, but it adds to the workload and we get NO breaks in the timelines for delivery of our finished labs. SO that is where the pressure-cooker starts! This is also true for the Core Team as they are also using early, often unreleased alpha or beta builds and can run into similar issues. The additional effort that is required to be building out a lab environment while actively QA-ing new code drops at the same time is challenging…Days of 14-16 hours, nights, and weekends are considered the norm for Captains and Core Team as well as the Product Engineering folks who are on-site with us, so this volunteer effort is not for the faint of heart!

Once everything gets fully documented and deployed, the Core Team works their magic on pushing out everything to the three cloud environments: Las Vegas (Switch), Amsterdam (Colt), and Miami (Terremark). These are the sites from which we will be pulling sessions through View 5 into the labs for the attendees.

Finally, after months of creation and testing, we arrive onsite in Las Vegas several days prior to the event to setup the physical lab and begin testing.  Again, long days and little sleep are the highlights of these final testing sessions where we bring up the labs and stress test the environment.

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Heroics abound in and around the lab from the Captains, Proctors, Core Team, and support staff. Every year we worry, ”Can we really pull off such a trick of having 480 workstations all pulling virtual labs and manuals to a single event, and have it be smooth and without incident? Well, generally SOMETHING happens (small config errors, lose a piece of HW, etc.) but the teams band together to make sure things work, even if it requires brute force to do so! Somehow, we get through it (after 148,000 VMs) and then do it all again in Europe and PEX! (Though admittedly on smaller scales…250 seats in Copenhagen, and 120 seats at PEX to reflect the difference in overall attendance of the events.)

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We also got to watch all of the lab activity via vCOPs (vCenter Operations), and saw exactly how dynamic and massive the environment really was.

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No other technology company I know of provides this level of lab automation and complexity while providing a high value experience for our customer attendees. I am really looking forward to next year when we offer these labs all year round and allow everyone to take advantage of the great work hundreds of people have contributed to provide such a unique offering (more on this soon). So next time you see any of the “red shirts” that say LabStaff on them, give a note of thanks for all of the hard work these folks have put in to give our attendees, the best possible lab learning experience available anywhere! We will also have new labs and processes that we are already beginning to formulate for VMWorld 2012 and beyond, so stay tuned later in the year to see what we have in store! Please ask questions in the comments about the HOL, and Aaron and I will share what we can…

2 comments
  1. Great write up Thomas.  I was an attendee at Copenhagen, took 6 or 7 labs and never found them any thing less than perfect.  The red (and blue vspecialist) shirts were always helpful and totally professional.  I learnt a huge amount from the labs and if I am lucky enough to attend again I will ensure that my lab attendance increases (well if I get past the early morning hangovers that is…)  Thanks – a great job, much appreciated.

  2. Thanks Dusted! We aim to please! I would also be interested in any and all feedback from the readers and participants on what we can improve upon and what types of other features/capabilities we can add to the HOL for future planning…

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