NBC’s installation of Novell products as the mainline of its network for the coverage of the Summer Olympic Games was fraught with lackluster communications products, poor technical support and snags in multivendor communications, according to the systems integrator responsible for setting up the network.
As a result, the systems integrator, Nesbit Systems Inc., had to scramble to come up with alternative connections — in some cases replacing Novell Inc. products with 3Com Corp. hardware — to ensure the network delivered what it was designed to do: provide NBC’s on-site staff in Seoul, South Korea, with access to a research database on a local minicomputer and remote ties to systems in New York and Minneapolis.
The snafus caused Nesbit Systems to spend 50 percent more time on the project than planned. And, because a fixed price had been charged for the entire project, the company swallowed an estimated loss of $50,000 to $75,000, said Ken Michielsen, vice president of the Princeton, N.J., integration company.
While the System Fault Tolerant (SFT) NetWare operating system performed without a hitch, Novell’s communications products performed poorly and were bug-ridden to boot, said Irene Nesbit, president of the systems-integration company.
The major offenders were all Novell gateway products: the NetWare X.25 Gateway, Asynchronous Communications Server and NE 1000 Ethernet cards in conjunction with Interlan Inc.’s NetWare TCP/IP Gateway, Nesbit said.
Novell’s Achilles Heel
To make matters worse, the technical headaches led to heavy reliance on technical support from Novell, which Nesbit characterized as the company’s Achilles heel.
Nesbit was also confronted with problems stemming from the use of multiple vendors’ products, even though these vendors, such as Interlan, claimed to have worked closely with Novell. Interoperability problems caused by undiscovered bugs were exacerbated by finger-pointing among the vendors, she said.
The Novell official closest to the NBC project acknowledged many of the network’s difficulties, but said his company tried its best to provide support in spite of time and budget constraints — and the fact that Nesbit Systems provided very few details of the network’s configuration.
”With the constraints we were under, there were problems in communications and . . . product problems,” said Mike Pierce, Novell’s director of advanced technical services, in Provo, Utah.
”In the end, we applied quite a bit of effort to get [the network] up and running under deadline,” Pierce said.
While Nesbit went so far as to claim that Novell and other vendors lied about product functionality, NBC was markedly less critical.
”[It’s] not as harsh as misrepresentation [of products],” said Mike Zablocki, the NBC systems administrator assigned to the project. ”It was more of a reliance on marketing strength, not a tested product. It made our consultants work harder, under more pressure and made us pay more money. We always had to have second plan.”
NBC’s Etherent network was designed to allow PS/2 users on the NetWare LAN to access a research database on a Digital Equipment Corp. VAX via Interlan’s TCP/IP gateway.
The companies planned a T-1 connection to link the Korean network to the NBC network in New York, and the New York LAN would be similarly linked to PCs at a Minneapolis travel agency that coordinated NBC’s travel plans.
NBC was to use the Asynchronous Communications Gateway to access another mainframe controlled by the Korean Olympic Committee and to link to remote broadcast sites.
Novell initially offered to consult on the project, but Nesbit Systems declined because of NBC’s budgetary constraints, Novell’s Pierce said. Nesbit Systems arranged to be provided with help from only one technical support person at Novell.
The main problem with the gateways was their unreliability. This forced Nesbit to establish fallback positions, such as slowing the connection or resorting to a direct, dedicated link, Nesbit said.
For example, the NetWare X.25 Gateway was chosen to provide real-time communications between the U.S. and Korean networks.
The gateway continually slowed and dropped the connection, and neither Novell nor Nesbit Systems could pinpoint the problem, said Michielsen.
The NetWare Asynchronous Communications Server also suffered from tenuous connections. Pierce acknowledged that Novell has had many problems with the NACS, including the one Nesbit Systems cited: a workstation froze when Novell’s Wide Area Network Interface Module card was used.
Interlan’s TCP/IP Gateway proved so unreliable that Nesbit Systems hard-wired the mission-critical users to the VAX instead, Michielsen said. The TCP/IP gateway also imposed a 38-user limitation on the VAX, which required the VAX to be shut down and reset every night.
Also, Novell’s NE 1000 Ethernet cards contained a known bug that prohibited TCP/IP connections. Many had to be thrown out and replaced with adapters from 3Com Corp., according to Michielsen.
Surprisingly, NBC‘s Zablocki remains optimistic about future Novell endeavors.
”[NBC’s] not burned at all; we were doing things that were hard to be done hurriedly,” he said.