DNC Adapts to New Technology, Times

The Democratic Convention planners approached this year's convention with a clear mission of the role of high tech.

A lot of things have changed in the past four years.

In 2000, the new millennium was dawning, and the economy was at the apex of the dot-com boom. The country was in the middle of what would become a tumultuous election season. The future seemed bright, and at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, delegates readied for a technology joy ride.

"Its our e-mersion coverage. Were on the frontier of something big; we are in the space of the future," Naz Nageer, then director of technology for the Democratic National Convention Committee, was quoted in The New York Times before the event.

Fast-forward to 2004, and it seems as if we are living in a new world. The economy is more grounded in reality, as are the uses of technology. So when the planners of the 2004 Democratic National Convention sat down a year ago to map out next weeks event in Boston, they had a clear mission of the role of high tech.

"In 2000, we did a lot of technology just for technologys sake, and this time, were a little more focused," said Christopher Gruin, director of technology for the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "Were using technology as tools to support what were doing, to support our communications, support the event."

This is not to say that technology wont be a critical part of next weeks proceedings—technologies that did not play a big part in 2000, such as VOIP (voice-over-IP) and Wi-Fi connectivity, will have major roles for delegates and the media—but this time around, the emphasis is on using technology rather than showcasing it.

Gruin is a veteran of several political events, including the convention in 2000 and the NATO 50th Anniversary event in Washington in the spring of 1999. Gruin came late to the Los Angeles process, for which he helped on a rebuilding effort. "In 2000, we ended up rolling everything back and starting from scratch with about six weeks to go, so it had its own challenges," he said.

This time around, Gruin and his staff are proving that building a technology infrastructure for a large event quickly, efficiently and securely is as much of an art as a science. In fact, Gruin is familiar with the term "best practices" and is using it. No. 1 on the hit parade was, he said, early coordination with officials from Boston and the Fleet Center, where the event will be held.

In addition, Gruin said he met early with agencies like the Federal Communications Commission, which is sorting out the many radio-frequency issues that will be prevalent during the convention. Given the number of cell phones and TV microwave trucks in the area and the proximity to Bostons Logan International Airport, "its just going to be, to say the least, a very rich radio environment," he said.

Not all attendees will be able to tap the Wi-Fi environment, however, Gruin said, as the convention committee is rolling out the service only to select users. The primary group includes media photographers, who will have access to 802.11b or 802.11g access points near their stations on the convention floor. There will be access points around each state delegation, but Gruins team will be able to manage each node and turn them on and off. For the most part, no "open" Wi-Fi network will be available, he said.

Another big difference is the role of the technology providers, principally Microsoft Corp., for client and server software; Cisco Systems Inc., for all internetworking equipment; Hewlett-Packard Co., for mobile and printing solutions; and IBM, which has donated $2 million in equipment, Gruin said. In past events, the DNC got the equipment, but all the installation and integration was done by DNC personnel or contractors. This time, he said, vendors will be doing all the prep work.

"I have a budget for staff and a budget for hardware and software, but the trick is managing this through the official providers," Gruin said. "We took a different approach to that this time as well. In the past, we just looked for the hardware and software. This time, we made a concerted effort to work with their engineers."

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read the full interview with Gruin.

The DNC will deploy about 32 servers, 800 computers and several terabytes of storage at the Fleet Center next week. The hardware and software used at the event will be donated to the city of Boston, the Boston Police Department, the Boston Public Schools and some youth programs. "All the equipment that Ive ordered, Ive tried to keep in mind what the school district could use and what they need—if it could be repurposed," Gruin said.

All in a years worth of planning.

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Scot Petersen

Scot Petersen

Scot Petersen is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Prior to joining Ziff Brothers, Scot was the editorial director, Business Applications & Architecture,...