Every year, we attend more than fifty trade shows and conferences around the world. We want to spread the word about SoftLayer and connect with each conference's technical audience (also known as future SoftLayer customers). That goal is pretty straightforward on paper, but when it comes to executing on it, we're faced with the same challenge as all of our fellow exhibitors: How do we get our target audience to the our booth?
Walk down any aisle of an expo hall, and you'll see collateral and swag beckoning to attendees like a candy bar at the grocery store register. Some exhibitors rely on Twitter to monitor an event's hashtag and swoop in at every opportunity to reach the show's influential attendees. Other exhibitors might send out emails to their clients and prospects in the area to invite them to the show. We see value in each of those approaches, but what we found to be most effective was to bring a SoftLayer data center to our booth ... or at least a piece of one.
The Server Challenge has come a long way over the years. Its meager beginnings involved installing RAM and hard drive cables in a tower server. Shortly thereafter, a rack-mount server replaced the tower server, but you were still tasked with "inside the server" challenges. As we started looking for ways to tell the bigger SoftLayer story with the Server Challenge, we moved to miniature server rack, and the competition really started to pick up steam. This year, we made it our goal to take the Server Challenge to the next level, and when Supermicro stepped in to sponsor the next iteration of the the competition, we started thinking BIG.
Why use a miniature version of a SoftLayer rack when we could use a full-size version? Why have a standalone screen when rack-mount monitors can make the display part of the unit? Why rely on speakers behind the booth to pump "Eye of the Tiger" while attendees are competing when we could easily build those into the next version of the challenge? What was initially intended to be a "tweak" of the first Server Challenge became a complete overhaul ... Hence the new "Server Challenge II" moniker.
Harkening back to the 8-bit glory days of Pac Man and Space Invaders, the Server Challenge II uses a full-size 42U server rack with vintage arcade-style branding, a built-in timer and speakers that blast esoteric video game music. The bread and butter of the challenge is the actual server hardware, though ... Supermicro provided two new 2U servers to replace the previous version's five 1U servers, and we installed the same Cisco (public and private networks) and SMC (out-of-band management network) switches you see in SoftLayer's pods.
We had two instances of the original Server Challenge (one in the US, one in Amsterdam), so in order for the Server Challenge II to be bigger and better, we had to increase that total to five — one instance in Europe, one in Asia and three in the United States. Things might get a little crazier logistically, but as a potential conference attendee, it means you're even more likely to encounter the Server Challenge II if you attend any events with us.
The Server Challenge II's Internal Debut
The first instance of the Server Challenge II made its debut at GDC Online in Austin, and we immediately knew we had a hit. By the time the rack got back to our office, we had to get it ready for its next destination (Cloud Expo West), but before we sent it on its way, we gave it an official internal debut ... and raised some money for the American Heart Association in the process.
SLayers at the SoftLayer HQ in Dallas could pay $3 for one attempt or $5 for two attempts to reach the top of the Server Challenge II leader board. Needless to say, it was competitive. If you click on the image above, you'll notice that our fearless leader, Lance Crosby, stopped by and gave tips to (and/or heckled) a few participants. Unsurprisingly, one of our very talented Server Build Technicians — Ellijah Fleites — took home a MacBook Air and bragging rights as SoftLayer champion with a record time of 1:03.79 ... But records are made to be broken.
In Two Places at Once
Immediately after the AHA fundraiser, we crated up the rack and sent it along to Cloud Expo West in Santa Clara. A few days later, we put the finishing touches on the second Server Challenge II rack, and because we got it done quickly, we were able to get it shipped to the other side of the country for ad:tech NYC. We would finally have the competition running in two places at the exact same time!
We weren't disappointed.
On both coasts, the retro style of the Server Challenge II lured some fantastic competitors (excellent!), and started a lot of great conversations (even better!). Here are the final leader boards from the shows:
You probably notice that the times in the ad:tech leader board are a little higher than the times in the Cloud Expo leader board, and our team figured out why that was in the middle of the second day of the conference ... The way we bound the network cables differed slightly between the two instances, and we were using different switches to time the competition (one that required only one hand to activate/deactivate, the other requiring both hands). In order to have an "apples-to-apples" comparison between all of our shows, we're going to make sure everything is consistent with all of the instances, and we plan on keeping a running list of fastest overall challenge times ... and maybe even a "World Championship" one day.
Given the early success of the Server Challenge II, you can bet that it's not going anywhere any time soon. If we have multiple shows running the challenge at one time, we might even fire up a video chat where you can compete against an attendee at a completely different conference ... so be prepared.
In the next year, we'll have all five of the Server Challenge II instances in rotation across three continents, and with the popularity of the competition growing by leaps and bounds after every show, we hope by next holiday season, a home version of the Server Challenge II is at the top of every wish list on the planet. :-)
For now, though, I'll just leave you with a glimpse at the action from Cloud Expo West (click for more pictures from the show):