Among the many other exciting diversions for those of a nerdy bent at the PAX East 2015 gaming convention in Boston this past weekend, there was a LAN party. And as you might expect, it wasn't your average hastily erected LAN, with computers situated around a couple cheap consumer switches nestled between boxes of pizza.
No, the LAN party at PAX East featured fully 420 gaming machines, set out in endless rows on long rectangular tables, and stations for more than 300 computers brought in by conference-goers. The setup was provisioned and managed by LANFest, a non-profit organization sponsored by Intel to raise money for charity via sponsorship of big LAN parties.
According to the people who run it, LANfest is constantly on the move -- after tearing down at the conclusion of this weekend's PAX East show in Boston, the team is off to South By Southwest in Austin, for a much smaller event of 180 seats.
Server admin Jason Kelly and network manager Jordan Toor are experienced veterans of LANFest -- PAX East 2015 marks the pair's 12th event working together, and both said that experience is crucial to making the process work correctly.
"We've seen and done just about everything," said Kelly. "Most of the stuff we've set up is stuff we've set up years ago, that we continue to bring because it works and it continues to work -- we try not to reconfigure anything we don't have to."
Ideally, most of the actual work goes into putting the system together on-site, with little upkeep to handle after the fact.
"Setup takes Wednesday and Thursday, and if everything's going well, we sit around and do nothing the rest of the time, because it's working," said Toor.
The team uses Cisco gear, he noted -- mostly 2950s and 2960s for the edge switches and 10G 4948s in the core. "A bunch of members of our executive committee are very familiar with Cisco -- the gear might be 15 years old, but we know it's gonna keep running forever. It's also cheaper, so we only run the 10/100[Mbit] versions of switches," he said.
They can use these lower-capacity switches because multiplayer gaming traffic isn't particularly demanding -- at least, not when there are only a few machines.
"It's not a lot, but when you're talking about 420 machines here, and another 300-something over there, a megabit per machine is a lot," Kelly said. "We try and limit every machine to 512[k], which is enough -- they can't watch YouTube or stream something, you know, they're at a LAN. But internally, everything's gigabit, if any of the games have local servers here or they're peer-to-peer internally or whatever, they're screaming-fast."
Enough gamers in one place can cause other unique headaches, he added.
"Another issue we see all the time is we will start up Steam or League of Legends or Minecraft ... all 500 clients launch from one external IP address. So what happens? We immediately get blocked because they [the game servers] think it's some kind of DDoS attack," Kelly said.
The team has other workarounds for common problems -- one bandwidth headache in past years has been the heavy traffic caused by gamers trying to download new games, but a more recent system using a Steam cache server allows them to keep many titles stored locally, for much faster access.
"If we download it once, it gets cached -- so if anyone tries to download it again from within, they're downloading it locally," said Kelly.