New connections heat up Antarctica

Antarctica is a desert on ice. Although the continent holds more than 90 per cent of the world’s ice, it only averages a few inches of precipitation annually and is one of the least friendly places on Earth for human habitation.

Scientists doing research work in Antarctica know they might only have one chance in a lifetime to visit the world’s southernmost continent. Winters there last six months and are without sunlight. The summers offer little reprieve, with powerful winds that reach 80 miles per hour in the interior and temperatures consistently below zero.

Just as scientists have adapted to the harsh conditions, they have become used to working with technology that is older and slower than what their colleagues have back in the United States. But those days are coming to an end.

The National Science Foundation, in conjunction with federal and private- sector partners, will soon finish installing a Gigabit Ethernet network backbone in McMurdo Station, the largest of three NSF research sites in Antarctica. The installation will provide scientists with significantly faster and more reliable network connectivity.

Within two years, the other two NSF stations – the South Pole and Palmer – will plug into the network, providing all the scientists with a high-speed, secure network supporting voice, video and data communications.

The change should be dramatic. Currently, some buildings at the stations only have Internet connections for about seven hours each day, said Patrick Smith, manager of technology development at the NSF’s Office of Polar Programs.

The Gigabit Ethernet backbone at McMurdo, using equipment from Cisco Systems Inc., replaces a seven-year-old Fiber Distributed Data Interface network. NSF is also replacing 10Mbps Ethernet hubs with high-speed Cisco switches. The equipment will improve performance and, because NSF is standardizing on equipment from one vendor, enhance maintenance and service.

The backbone itself is just the first stage of a three-phase process that will ultimately route all of the stations’ Internet connectivity and security operations back to the Colorado headquarters of Raytheon Co.’s Polar Services, which, along with Cisco, is heading up the program.

NSF, through the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), co-ordinates almost all U.S. scientific research in the Antarctic, including work in astronomy, biology, geology and oceanography. About 50 NSF employees are dedicated to Arctic and Antarctic programs acting as administrators, program operators and support personnel, Smith said.

“This [project] will give them more speed machine to machine, better local access and satellite management,” said Jeff Thompson, USAP consultant to Raytheon. “The goal of this whole network is critical, redundant and secure Internet connectivity with integrated voice, video and data from Englewood, [Colo.]. It will be identical and very easy to support with centrally managed network control in the U.S. – true, solid connectivity in integrating voice, video and data back to the states.”

Centralizing network security and control back to the states eliminates some of the stress on NSF employees and contractors in the Antarctic, Smith said. “We’re trying to restructure the Internet circuit connections to concentrate network control and security at Raytheon and NSF in [Colorado],” he said. “Now it’s piecemeal, with the operational burden on the individual stations, which adds stress because of competition for other work duties and varying skill sets.”

All the work for the current phase should be done by the end of September, which is remarkable considering the wire and cable configuration problems that have accumulated over the years. Much of the hardware has been mislabelled, which has required impromptu documentation, Smith said.

“The climate is very different here than anywhere else,” said Steve Pollock, system engineer at Cisco, speaking from Antarctica. “We’re going building to building in 40 miles per hour winds at 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) below zero, so it’s a challenge to push down cables and run through cables, especially because things here have not been documented as well as they could be.

“You also need plenty of spares because no flights come in here in the winter. We really had to think that through because it can’t be done any other way.”

Smith echoed Pollock’s sentiments about the unique challenges of building a network in the Antarctic. “It’s difficult because they are a long way from everybody if a part breaks. We need to think in terms of sparing and about the infrastructure and who’s hired to maintain it.”

The work is already paying off at McMurdo. The machines there are constantly reconfigured with new operating system images based on operations and service needs, and that process used to require substantial network downtime.

“Scientists are down here one time for six to 12 weeks, so every minute of their day is important to them,” Thompson said. “In the past, it took up to 20 minutes to reconfigure the machines, but they did it [yesterday] in five minutes, which is a huge advantage in the summertime.”

NSF scientists in the states will also benefit from the ice-breaking work when they can access project information from Antarctica in real time.

There’s a lot of potential here,” Pollock said, adding that it’s hard not to be inspired when there are vivid reminders of those like Robert Falcon Scott, who led one of the first expeditions to the continent in 1901. “This really is the last frontier in the world,” he said. “I’m in view of Scott’s hut right now and am putting a Gigabit network to support technology in Antarctica.”