RSA Conference denies bullying B-Sides San Francisco

The RSA Conference, one of the world’s largest Information Security gatherings, is facing criticism after it failed to reach a compromise over scheduling conflicts with a smaller event. According to organizers, when Security B-Sides held firm to their conference dates, RSA Conference invoked a non-compete clause in their sponsor contracts, forcing some security vendors to think twice before they could support the smaller conference.

For those who aren’t aware, the RSA Conference has been around for more than 20 years now. Next month, tens of thousands of IT professionals will head to California for the annual event. They’ll travel to learn about the latest technologies, hear presentations from industry peers, and some will use the event to further their professional lives with massive amounts of face-to-face networking.

Over time, the RSA Conference has grown from being a small crypto conference to a major industry event. Its roots lay deep within the security community, and as that community grew, so too did the RSA Conference. These days, the RSA Conference is held annually not only in the U.S., but in China and Europe as well.

Yin to the RSA Conference’s Yang, is a smaller, community focused gathering called Security B-Sides.

Originating in Las Vegas in 2009, B-Sides (like the RSA Conference) offers presentations from established security professionals, as well as a solid amount of personal interaction. The difference is size. At the most you may see a few hundred people at a B-Sides event. Moreover, there are no vendor booths or sales pitches to contend with.

The B-Sides gatherings take place near other larger security events, such as the RSA Conference and Black Hat, because those who attend one are likely to attend the other.

On Friday, organizers for the B-Sides San Francisco 2012 event said that they may have to cancel. For the last two years, businesses that sponsor the RSA Conference have also sponsored B-Sides. This year however, a clause in their sponsor contract for the RSA Conference would force them to pick sides.

Sponsors spend a good deal of money during the RSA Conference. In 2009, it took about $7,000 USD for a small presence on the Expo Hall floor or $110,000 USD for one of the larger spots. In addition, items such as trash cans ($29.00 USD to $35.00 USD each), lighting (starting at $150.00 USD), employee registration and access costs (each booth allows for three passes, other employees must pay), and Internet connections (which, for a fractional T1, costs a vendor about $1,300 USD), also need to be purchased.

By contrast, those that can afford it, will spend anywhere from $3-7,000 USD extra to sponsor a B-Sides event. Sometimes, it’s much less.

Yet, given the size of the RSA Conference itself, the vendors who would normally sponsor both events, are put in a tight spot. They need the marketing and brand awareness that comes from being part of the RSA Conference, but they also want to help the Information Security industry as a whole.

“We received an initially overwhelming response from sponsors but were notified that contractually companies that sponsor RSA cannot sponsor another event in a 5 mile radius. If RSA enforces this contract with their sponsors we could lose 90% of sponsorship dollars,” B-Sides organizers announced.

“In past years RSA has permitted sponsors a waiver enabling them to support both the corporate and community side of security. This year may be the last for that waiver and threatens to end the event attended by many community participants.”

The good news: B-Sides San Francisco will go on as planned. The bad news: if it wasn’t for the kindness of Lee Kushner, the Founder of Information Security Leaders, the notion that B-Sides would have lost an event over economical pressure was certain.

“Events like BSides are essential to the information security industry and the professional development of current and future information security leaders,” Kushner said.

“Being in a position to provide the necessary financial support to guarantee that BSidesSF takes place is a blessing. I could not think of a better way to demonstrate my appreciation and gratitude to the community that has given so much to me and my family.”

The Tech Herald reached out to RSA Conference organizers for comments and explanations surrounding the B-Sides situation. We were told that no one was available to speak with us, and pointed to a blog post by RSA Conference General Manager, Sandra Toms LaPedis.

In the post, LaPedis said that there was no attack against B-Sides and that they offered to help find another venue to deal with the proposed scheduling conflicts, but the offer was ignored.

“RSA Conference has been in discussions with B-Sides for over a year to find ways that the two events can exist during the week without making attendees feel the need to choose one event over another,” the post explained.

“During this time, the Conference only requested that B-Sides host its SF show on Sunday and Monday. The reasoning is that our Expo Hall opens on Tuesday which features over 300 exhibitors that do not sponsor B-Sides that make a significant investment to exhibit at RSA Conference could lose potential visitors on that day if they are electing to visit two events in one day.”

It is unlikely the attendees arriving for the RSA Conference who wish to visit B-Sides will be allowed to travel early just to attend a smaller second event. Most of those heading to the RSA Conference are sent by their respective employers, and they arrive late in the day on Monday.

The week of the RSA Conference is a busy one, but the major days are Tuesday and Wednesday. This is when a majority of the presentations are given, and they’re the peak days for the Expo Hall.

As a reporter who has covered the RSA Conference several times, and will cover it again this year, I speak from personal observation and experience when I say that the Expo Hall is often split between the haves and have-nots.

The vendors that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars or more will have their company brand on all of the RSA Conference materials, and a large presence on the Expo floor. The smaller – budget restricted – vendors occupy smaller sections of floor space, and are often passed up by attendees as they head to the larger more visually appealing booths. The exception are those smaller booths that have something unique to give away, or some sort of gimmick to draw attention to themselves.

So on Monday and Tuesday, if 1,000 people or so attend B-Sides, it’s unlikely that anyone in the Expo Hall will notice.

Last year, many of the vendors I spoke with who asked about my B-Sides nametag - I covered B-Sides on their second day - didn’t have a clue what B-Sides was, let alone show any concern over lost foot traffic.

For the majority of RSA Conference goers, Tuesday and Wednesday are the only days they attend. For many of them, the last two years have come with a bonus, as they’ve gotten the benefit having B-Sides within walking distance of the Mascone Center (where the RSA Conference is held). Five miles away puts B-Sides out of their reach.

As things stand, B-Sides San Francisco 2012 is saved.

But if the sponsorship waivers end in 2013, this added conference bonus will disappear, because Goliath aimed a bulk eraser at David.

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