New territory relies on satellites for network infrastructure

One of the many aspects of northern life that changed when the territory of Nunavut was created earlier this year was the decentralization of government services.

Until the birth of the 350,000-square-kilometre eastern Arctic territory, all services had been controlled from Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, in which Nunavut was located.

But that is no longer the case. “What we’ve done is taken certain functions, like education, and we’ve decentralized the whole function,” said Ken O’Neill, Nunavut’s CIO. “We can support entire functions in a community, rather than them all being headquartered.”

The new administrative system required a new network. And given Nunavut’s large land mass and sparse population, the only networking option was satellite.

Work on the territory’s new network began in July 1998, when Donna Cona, an Ottawa-based aboriginal systems integration company, and Systems Interface, which owns 49 per cent of Donna Cona and is also based in Ottawa, were brought in to do initial design and implementation work.

Barry Dowdall, vice-president at Systems Interface, said building a distributed satellite network presented a variety of hurdles. By far the largest was the latency inherent in satellite communication. There is at least 0.6 seconds of latency every time a communication has to be sent to a satellite and another 0.6-second lag for the communication to get bounced back from the satellite, resulting in a minimum delay of 1.2 seconds for each hop in a satellite network.

“You run into performance problems, because that really slows response time on the screen,” Dowdall said. “You also get timeouts, because some applications just won’t handle that.”

The solution was to minimize the number of hops. To achieve this, Systems Interface and Donna Cona decided to install a router and satellite groundstation in each of the 26 communities that would have administrative services.

“We tried to go from the groundstation to the satellite and down directly to the groundstation in the community we’re trying to reach, as opposed to going to another community and back up again,” Dowdall said.

A second hurdle was the logistics of installing IT equipment in a relatively isolated region.

“Let’s say a server gets delivered and there’s not enough memory in it,” Dowdall said. “You can’t just go out and get the memory the next day. Getting it up there is a challenge.”

Also, Dowdall noted, there aren’t as many support personnel in Nunavut as there are in more populous areas.

“For vendor support of products, there’s no one local. If there’s a problem with a card in a router or something, a technician won’t be there.”

The only way to get around the logistical problem is to make sure nothing is forgotten the first time a team heads north, Dowdall said.

“The amount of planning you have to put in is more intense than down south, because if you miss something or something doesn’t get delivered and you have three or four people who were flown into a community and can’t complete the job, it gets very expensive.”

O’Neill is hoping to bring the new network on-line within the next few months. When completed, the infrastructure will consist of approximately 200 workstations, 26 servers, 26 routers, 26 satellite groundstations and several switches.

In each community, the desktops will link to the servers, either through a switch or directly. Each server will be connected to a router, which in turn will be linked to a satellite groundstation. The groundstation will communicate with a satellite over links that range from 64Kbps to 768Kbps.

Most communities are connected to the satellite network at lower speeds. The highest-speed connection is for communications between Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, and Yellowknife.

The application environment will be all Microsoft, with Office on the desktops and Exchange for e-mail, plus other applications built on SQL Server.

The first application to run over the network will be e-mail, Dowdall said, with others following shortly.

Until the new network is up and running, Nunavut will rely on an established satellite network which uses Yellowknife as a hub with dumb terminal access in the outlying communities.

“There are a lot of applications running back in Yellowknife that they haven’t brought over to the new government, so we have to have pretty good connectivity back to Yellowknife for a lot of the applications,” Dowdall said.

It would have been simpler from an architecture viewpoint to have kept everything centralized, Dowdall said. “You could have just had dumb terminal access back to Iqaluit, but that’s not the philosophy of the new government. It’s to move the services out to the people as closely as possible, which means getting them out to every community.”

One advantage of this architecture is that even if the satellite network goes down, each local community will have access to services information off its local server.

Dowdall said satellite networks don’t tend to go down too often, but can suffer temporary disruptions from solar activity.