There are numerous federal scientists who need to stay connected to their home offices from very remote locations, including Antarctica.

How NSF, NASA, State Keep Tech Working for Far-Flung Employees

Some teleworkers are more remote than others, and that includes scientists at the South Pole, astronauts aboard the ISS and diplomats in distant countries.

When researchers go outside in Antarctica during winter, they must bundle up from head to toe to protect themselves — and their mobile devices as well — against the frigid cold.

“The standard operating procedure for electronic cameras, smartphones and tablets is to keep them under one’s parka to stay warm. Pull them out long enough to use, and then put them back,” says Patrick D. Smith, manager of technology development and polar research support at the National Science Foundation.

Not all government workers in need of modern technology sit behind desks in air-conditioned offices. Some work in distant and potentially hostile locations: in foreign countries at war, at the North and South Poles and even in space.

Federal IT leaders supply these remote workers with the basic IT services, technology and support they need, despite their distance and lack of accessibility. When traditional broadband and phone service are not available, agencies provide users with satellite internet access and deploy IP phone systems in those faraway locations.

They use remote management tools to troubleshoot IT equipment and take advantage of cloud services, which give remote users access to necessary applications while reducing the amount of technology infrastructure to manage.

“There’s technology that makes it easier to do things remotely, but there are some physical limitations you can’t overcome,” says Linda Cureton, CEO of IT consulting firm Muse Technologies and former CIO of NASA.

NASA officials provide technical guidance to the International Space Station, orbiting 240 miles above Earth, but the astronauts must fix printer jams or install new equipment themselves. 

NSF Connects Scientists in Antarctica

NSF faces multiple challenges as it provides communications and IT services to three research centers, two research vessels and field camps in Antarctica, where scientists from educational institutions and multiple federal agencies conduct research on biology, climate change, geology and astrophysics.

On a basic level, many consumer electronics are not designed to work below freezing. On Earth’s coldest ­continent, winter temperatures can drop to 80 below or worse. If devices are left out too long, circuit boards can shrink and components can freeze and fail; the dry-as-a-desert air also makes static electricity an ongoing problem.

Limited bandwidth is an equally serious issue. Because relatively few people need the service, companies don’t find it cost-effective to offer much satellite ­service, and running cable would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But in 2010, NSF and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration convinced an Australian satellite operator to provide internet service. The NSF’s share of the bandwidth was 18 megabits per second for download speeds and 10Mbps for upload speeds.

That’s not blazing fast for McMurdo Station, the largest of the three U.S. research centers, which houses on average 900 to 1,000 bandwidth-hungry researchers and staff from NSF, NOAA and NASA during the peak of the austral summer operating season.

“We have a network link that is essentially the same speed that a family would get in rural America,” says Smith of NSF’s Office of Polar Programs.

NSF deployed Riverbed Technology’s WAN optimization appliances to compress data and prioritize critical applications.

“We do all the things we are supposed to do: filter content and block streaming video,” he says. 

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How NSF Prioritizes Network Traffic in Antarctica 

Internal IT traffic gets top priority at McMurdo. NSF has hired a contractor to manage day-to-day IT operations, including overseeing a large data center with Hewlett Packard Enterprise DL380 servers and a network made up of Cisco routers and switches.

When onsite IT staff can’t fix a problem, the contractor’s IT staff at its Colorado data center remotely connects to networking equipment and servers to troubleshoot.

Real-time traffic, which includes Cisco Voice over IP and Skype videoconferencing, gets second priority. While the NSF has locked down the Skype protocol to protect bandwidth, researchers share one Skype session for science operations and educational outreach with K–12 schools and colleges.

Scientific needs, such as synchronizing databases and sending files back to the U.S., get the next highest priority, while “morale” traffic — personal communications, web surfing and entertainment — ranks last.

“We are there to support science,” Smith explains.

Antarctica is largely inaccessible for about half the year, including 24 hours of darkness during the depths of winter, which poses another challenge. If equipment fails, the NSF can’t just order new technology and have it delivered by next-day air. Aircraft and cargo ships send supplies, but not every research station is accessible year-round.

As a result, the agency builds redundancy into its data center and network, and stocks up on spare equipment including servers, WAN optimizers and wireless network controllers to ensure continuity of services, Smith says. 

NASA Gives Astronauts Tech Customized for Space

Several times a year, NASA and its international partners launch spacecraft to the 20-year-old International Space Station, carrying supplies, new research and new equipment.

NASA is upgrading the 100 notebook computers that support all aspects of the mission, from command and control to research and communications, says Stephen Hunter, NASA’s manager of ISS computer resources. 

NASA has replaced 40 notebooks with HP ZBook laptops, which have powerful processors that allow astronauts to work more efficiently.

50

The number of computers that control systems in the International Space Station

Source: NASA.gov, "International Space Station Facts and Figures," April 27, 2018

“It helps with crew morale and supports the researchers. No one likes to work with old technology,” he says.

Each crew member is also equipped with a Microsoft Surface Pro or Apple iPad, which they use for experiments, operation support and web surfing.

NASA replaced two 20-year-old printers in April with new, modified HP OfficeJet 5740 printers. The crew members print out two reams of paper a month for mission needs, including emergency e-books, personal letters and photos.

The new HP Envy printers, which offer better print quality and the ability to wirelessly print from mobile devices, were customized to make sure they are safe to use in space. For example, HP removed glass and created a new 3D-printed tray to keep paper from floating away in microgravity.

The space station, which gets internet access from satellites, operates several networks segmented into different virtual LANs to separate data created by the U.S. astronauts from their international counterparts. “There is competitive science going on, so the VLANs protect access to devices,” Hunter says.

Because the station creates massive amounts of data, NASA hopes to upgrade to a 10-gigabit backbone in the near future. When that happens, the agency will provide procedures and technical support from Earth, but the astronauts will perform the installation. 

“The crew not only does research in orbit, but they serve as our remote technicians,” he says.

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The State Department Supports a Worldwide Footprint

The State Department supports IT globally, with 9,500 Foreign Service employees working in embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions in 191 countries. Locations range from war-torn nations like Afghanistan to the isolated Marshall Islands, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean midway between Hawaii and Australia.

Stephen Hunter, Manger of ISS Computer Resources, NASA
No one likes to work with old technology."

Stephen Hunter Manger of ISS Computer Resources, NASA

“Our folks deal with civil insurrection, rioting, coups, host nation harassment and other tough living conditions. Sometimes it’s an adventure just to get into work,” says Glenn Miller, deputy CIO of the State Department’s foreign operations.

The department provides internet service through a combination of leased lines and internet service provider circuits where possible. But in isolated locations, bandwidth can sometimes be spotty at best.

State Department Focuses on Backup Connectivity, Power

Some consulate and embassy locations don’t have stable power, resulting in frequent power outages. In those cases, the department uses generators and UPSs to protect its equipment.

When needed, State uses mobile satellite connections, called satellite fly-away kits, to provide temporary internet and phone access, Miller says.

In 2016, for example, a ship dropped anchor in the Marshall Islands and accidentally cut the fiber-optic cable, which caused an internet outage at the U.S. embassy for several months. A State IT staffer flew to the islands and got them running with a fly-away kit, he says.

State has historically deployed small data centers in each location with domain controllers, and mail and file servers. But the agency is working to shut those data centers down and is aggressively adopting cloud services, such as Office 365 and Google’s G Suite.

“We may have to leave some data centers in place if a location is isolated, has poor bandwidth and has difficulty getting cloud connectivity,” he says.

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Elizabeth Mockbee/National Science Foundation
Nov 12 2018