In-Depth

Extreme Computing

IT is being applied in some of the most extreme and inhospitable places on -- and above -- the Earth.

Barry Clifford knew he was in trouble the instant his notebook PC tumbled out of his knapsack. The veteran oceanographer and salvage expert has traveled the world, recovering sunken treasures and raising and rehabbing lost ships. But now, as he slogged through the mud in the Darien Jungle of Panama, he feared he had lost a treasure of his own -- the invaluable records, maps and data associated with his latest search.

"It just literally disappeared into a puddle of oozy, black mud," says Clifford, who immediately pulled the submerged PC free of the muck.

"I washed it off, and when I got back to the hotel that night, I actually put it in the shower to get all the mud out of the keyboard. Then I dried it with a hair dryer," Clifford recalls, "and that damned thing kept on going."

What you lookin' at, tough guy?
Panasonic Toughbook

That "damned thing" was a Panasonic Toughbook, a ruggedized notebook that has been hardened against spills, impacts and even -- Clifford learned -- submersion in mud. For years, Clifford had tried to use portable PCs on his 70-ton research vessel and in the field, but the combination of brutal humidity, caustic seawater, and punishing impacts foiled every effort. "I have one, two, three, four dead laptops," Clifford counts, "and two live Panasonics."

Those two live laptops -- which are outfitted with GPS receivers -- have changed the way Clifford works. He describes taking a digital snapshot of a coin found near a wreck, and uploading the imagery to an expert in the United States for identification.

"Within a few minutes I may know what I am looking at," says Clifford. "It would have taken weeks in the past to do something like that."

Harsh Environs
From environmental research to military operations to space flight, general purpose computers are finding a home in some of the most extreme operating environments on -- or above -- the earth.

Hailaeos Troy can tell you. As a technician in the Crary Lab at McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica, he's seen countless hard drives fall victim to the unforgiving environment.

"Antarctica is, to quote a poster we have in the Denver office, the 'Highest, Driest, Coldest place on earth,'" says Troy, who notes that low humidity in the station makes damage due to static shock a "huge" issue. "The drive failures I have seen are due sometimes to the travel to here and not letting systems acclimate."

Troy instructs new arrivals to wait at least 24 hours before firing up their PCs, so the air pressure inside drives can even out with the ambient pressure. But too many researchers simply "want to connect right away," Troy says.

Troy admits to neglecting the policy himself -- and has paid the price. "I went to the Pole for a week in 2004 and my Maxtor external 250GB drive clicked once and crashed because I didn't wait," he says. "Until hard drives move to either organic memory or solid state, we'll continue to have that issue."

Which is why the team at McMurdo keeps a healthy supply of spare hard drives around. After all, with the nearest Fry's about 8,000 miles away, it's not like someone can run down the street and order new hardware. "[It's as if] all warranties are void when the stuff gets here, because when I get back to Denver I start ordering parts that will not arrive on station for six months," Troy explains. "If a part arrives and it's broken, the turn around time may not occur before the season is out."

With a limited window for research (from Oct. 2 to Feb. 28), technicians at the Crary Lab have adopted what Troy calls a "yes attitude," going to extremes to address problems. "Short of a dead motherboard or LCD, we can get it working some way or another."

Special Forces Master Sergeant Ben Thomas (not his real name) faced a few environmental challenges of his own during a nine-month tour in Afghanistan. His team used Toughbooks for communications, mapping and mission planning. The systems, he said, were treated "roughly," weathering an enormous amount of punishment.

"The dust and the dirt that was in that environment … it really wreaked havoc on a lot of our equipment," Thomas recalls. "All the mechanical stuff that we had, there was a lot of problems."

The soldiers at the small firebase would cover desktop PCs with plastic when not in use, but peripherals like keyboards, floppy drives and mice failed regularly. The Toughboook systems, despite being out almost all the time, never failed.

"If it can withstand the military, it can take just about anything. The equipment is not treated gingerly," says Thomas. "Most civilian stuff just does not survive."

Failure Is Not an Option -- It's a Certainty
The ruggedized laptops may have passed muster in Thomas' Special Forces unit, but that doesn't mean he trusts them with his life. "We never go anywhere without having a redundant system," Thomas says. "That's one of our most important phrases: 'One is none, two is one.' In that environment, you plan for failure."

The two Toughbook laptops in Thomas' unit supported communications, but the team also maintained its stock voice communications gear. In fact, the radios remained the primary communication tool for volatile field operations.

"Certainly when we need to go and call a close air strike, I'm not going to pull out my Toughbook and do it," Thomas says. "But when we move and set up a base camp, or even if we are out overnight from our base camp, they can work really well in supporting our mission."

Thomas can survive without his laptops, but for Clifford, a system failure carries dire consequences, because he relies on the PC-based GPS to navigate his ship through treacherous waters. "Occasionally on these other computers you'll get a hiccup. It will just stop," says Clifford. "It's like landing an airplane and your system decides to take a nap for 30 seconds. You have to be right on all the time. We literally trust our lives with these things."

Clifford's solution is to run two laptops side-by-side. Either notebook can serve ship-side as a workstation and GPS navigation center, while the other goes into the field. If one PC fails, the second is available to take on any task. Call it a poor man's failover.

"When you bring a dozen people halfway around the world to places like Madagascar and Haiti and other places where we work, the one piece of equipment you can't have fail is your computer," Clifford says. "Your whole operation stops."

Mission operators at NASA can relate. The space program defines on-board systems using three categories, or Criticality Levels. Crit Level 1 denotes a system vital to life support. Crit Level 2 defines a system that would be detrimental to a mission if it failed. Crit Level 3 is for systems that will not threaten mission integrity if they fail.

Just a few more points till I get the top score...
Astronauts Mike Fincke (rear) and Leroy Chiao helped prove out the Windows handhelds on the ISS during back-to-back missions.

When Hewlett-Packard worked with NASA to put its iPaq 5150 handhelds on the International Space Station, the agency assigned the PDAs to Crit Level 3, the least-rigorous category. Astronauts use the handhelds to track work schedules, perform routine inventory and read e-mail -- all helpful, but hardly life- or mission-sustaining tasks. A barcode reader may soon be added to allow astronauts to more efficiently inventory station hardware.

Adapt and Overcome
Astronauts and soldiers may crave portability, but serious computing is going on at McMurdo Station, requiring more horsepower than a laptop can provide. A sprawling, mixed-platform network of more than 500 clients and scores of servers is managed via Microsoft Active Directory. The central network operations center (NOC) includes HP servers running Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003, as well as a mix of HP and Compaq servers providing messaging and other services. A growing number of Macintosh systems, popular among researchers for their stability and ease of use, has joined the fray.

"As of [version] 10.3 and now 10.4 of the Mac OS, AD integration has been fairly stable in my opinion. The Macs integrate seamlessly into the AD environment," Troy says. "I have written a custom application that maps drives and printers using LPR to take away some of the complexity of mapping drives."

Remote deployments can force some heady improvisations, as was the case this year when a failing radio backup unit threatened to scrub the launch of a research balloon bound for the Earth's ozone layer. Telemetry from an analog modem, installed on the balloon's scientific package, is saved to audiotape. But without the backup, the team risked losing the data. Troy cooked up a way to capture the modem's audio transmission to a high-bitrate MP3 file, using the recording module in the MusicMatch media software.

"The exciting thing is that they got better quality data near the end of the run when the balloon was almost out of range," Troy explains. "In the past the data would start getting sketchy; and it's at the end that the data was more critical, since the balloon was close to 60 miles away and 120,000 feet in the air."

In fact, the results were so good that the research group adopted Troy's digital capture fix as a formal process.

In Afghanistan, Thomas adapted the laptop PCs to refine the precision of the sometimes-sketchy maps they owned. Using a GPS receiver and geographical information systems (GIS) software, he blended satellite imagery, digital maps, and mission overlays to improve geographical awareness.

"You can't really read the terrain on some of the maps that we had," Thomas says. "If we were planning to go back to an area again, we wanted to be able to verify routes."

A Question of Comms
One application that gets tested -- and appreciated -- in the field is digital communications. At McMurdo, the 1.5Mbps Internet link (recently upgraded to 3Mbps) has broken down some of the isolation that comes with polar duty.

"From the [McMurdo] NOC there is a microwave shot to Black Island 20 miles away. From there it goes over a satellite link to Brewster, Washington, and links back to Denver Station, then connect via 12Mbps to the Internet," Troy says.

Can you hear me now?
Researchers at the Barneo Ice Camp at the North Pole connect to the Internet using a satellite phone.

Researchers once had sparse telephone time (via a satellite phone or spotty radio relay), but now make phone calls using voice over IP (VoIP) service. Always-on e-mail, IM and Web access allow McMurdo residents to stay in touch with family and friends. In fact, several station personnel maintain blogs, complete with photos and tales of life at the facility.

There's no end of challenges, of course. The recent 3Mbps upgrade disrupted VoIP service, limiting the roughly 1,000 residents to a handful of lines. And the high bandwidth link can fall victim to the harsh polar climate, such as when 200 mph winds damaged the Black Island tower in the winter of 2004. The station fell back to a 128Kbps link that runs through a nearby facility run by New Zealand. That link supported light e-mail traffic, while high frequency radio and Iridium satellite phones maintained voice communications.

Russian researchers at the primitive Barneo Ice Camp at the North Pole can only dream of a 3Mbps connection. In 2004, Intel Corp. deployed an 802.11g WiFi hotspot and several PCs at the camp, including one that sits outside and links to an Iridium satellite phone for Internet access. The WiFi setup lets researchers share materials, which has some real merits when temperatures drop as low as -36 degrees F.

"Nobody needs to go out and run to the next tent with a bunch of papers like it was many, many years ago," says Intel spokesman Vsevolod Sementsov.

Lessons from the Wasteland

Pack a spare: Whether you're on the battlefield or in the back office, there's no substitute for redundant hardware. Keep an ample supply of spare parts, components, connectors and tools so your staff can keep systems running. As a soldier who spent time in Afghanistan likes to say: "Two is one, and one is none."

Make do with less: Antarctica's McMurdo Research Station can't maintain a spare microwave transmitter, so it falls back to a sluggish -- but operational -- 128Kbps link when its main connection goes down. Examine your operation for single points of failure and ensure emergency backup systems are available.

Respect the environment: On the International Space Station it's the lack of gravity; off the coast of Madagascar the unrelenting humidity and caustic seawater; in Afghanistan the pervasive dust and constant physical punishment. Understand the environmental factors your equipment (and people) will face and build around them.

Mind the malware: The threat of viruses and other malware were substantial for researchers in Antarctica and the tropics. The fact is, any PC that connects to the Internet, or shares a network with others that do, faces a constant threat. No matter how temporary your deployment, be sure to deploy layered defenses, ample remediation tools, and knowledgeable staff to deal with the inevitable fallout of system infection.

Improvise and overcome: The soldier's special forces unit applied GPS technology and geographical information systems (GIS) software to refine mission planning and fill gaps in their paper maps. At McMurdo, Technician Hailaeous Troy cooked up a way to capture research telemetry using the recording module in MusicMatch media software.

Don't scrimp on toughness: Everywhere we looked, the Panasonic Toughbook name seemed to pop up. The rugged PCs are bulky and heavy, but also the laptop equivalent of an armored Humvee. The sealed chassis resists particulates and water, and protects against shocks and falls.

Obey your own rules: When an Antarctic researcher broke with policy by booting a PC before it had acclimated to the polar climate, he destroyed a 250GB hard drive. The lesson's simple: IT managers who take shortcuts -- for instance, with authentication policies and data backups -- can threaten network security and data integrity.

Manage the supply chain: FedEx can't fix everything. It can take up to six months to ship components to McMurdo, so the station plans carefully and works to recover all reparable equipment. In Afghanistan, the soldier's team bought replacement peripherals from a local businessman, who was able to acquire products over the border in Pakistan.

Consider safety: Inhospitable climes make even innocuous equipment a threat. NASA worried that a smashed PDA could scatter shards of glass into a dangerous cloud that astronauts might inhale, or that a burning PDA could throw off toxic fumes, and found ways to deal with the threat. Hurricane Hunter flights lock their modular research stations into the body of the aircraft to prevent equipment from flying around in severe turbulence.
-- M.D.

Safety First
Difficult environments can also make safety a key concern. When HP worked to get its iPaqs deployed on the International Space Station, the team had to comply with a stringent set of NASA requirements. Over the ensuing months, HP electrical engineer Scott Briggs arranged to have his company's PDAs dismantled, crushed, torched and irradiated, in order to ensure that the hardware wouldn't pose a threat in the closed, zero-gravity environment of the ISS.

The compact form factor seemed ready made for spaceflight, Briggs says. For instance, larger system designs must often replace liquid-filled electrical capacitors -- which can leak in zero G -- with dry ones. Owing to its small size and meager power draw, the iPaq used dry capacitors from day one. Likewise, the tiny electrical circuits in the PDA limit the impact of harmful gamma rays, says Briggs.

NASA's biggest concern about the iPaq? "[That if] it got hit by something, little shards of glass would get dispersed in the environment, so astronauts would breathe them in," says Briggs. The solution was a simple laminate screen cover, purchased off the shelf, which in tests prevented shards from floating free.

"When you bring a dozen people halfway around the world to places like Madagascar and Haiti and other places where we work, the one piece of equipment you can’t have fail is your computer."
-- Barry Clifford, Oceanographer and Salvage Expert

The Hurricane Hunter program operated by the U.S. Air Force faces a different safety issue. The unit operates 10 WC-130J Hercules turboprop aircraft, flying into some of the most violent storms on earth to take critical wind, pressure and other atmospheric measurements. On each mission, the crew will drop five to 25 dropsondes -- tennis ball can-sized sensor packages -- into the storm, receiving the telemetry on a Windows NT-based station running software called AVAPS. Meanwhile, the Aerial Reconnaissance Weather Officer (or ARWO) uses a Windows XP station to track onboard atmospheric sensors, verify dropsonde data, and communicate with the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Because the aircraft often encounter severe turbulence, the workstations are integrated into palletized loading systems, which are rolled into the aircraft. "They are locked to the floor once in place, so they don't fly around and crush someone if the aircraft loses altitude, for example," says Technical Sergeant James Pritchett, a spokesman for the 403rd Wing that operates the Hurricane Hunter program.

"As for G-forces, which can occasionally come into play, the main issue is operator ability to use the equipment," Pritchett says. "It can be hard to type and/or read the screen when the aircraft is losing or gaining a few thousand feet of altitude in a matter of seconds."

Malware Menace
Whether you're at McMurdo, Antarctica or Muncie, Ill., a common threat faces all connected PCs -- malware. Troy says guest researchers (called "grantees" in polar parlance) often bring virus- and spyware-riddled systems onto the base, where they can threaten the network. His team uses Bart PE bootable CD-ROM discs to bootstrap and disinfect compromised systems.

Lacking IT skills, Clifford simply makes sure his primary mission PC never accesses the Internet. "I have too many nightmares of a computer infected with something and wiping out my whole system," Clifford says. "I just don't put this computer online because I'm terrified it's going to get some sort of virus. It's just too valuable, you know?"

MSG Thomas had no such worries. "Afghanistan was in the dark ages where we were. We had no communications and we had no access," Thomas says.

Ten years ago, off-the-shelf computing gear might have seemed far-fetched in places like Afghanistan and the Barneo Ice Camp. But the increasing utility and reliability of systems make the technology too valuable to ignore. Whether observing shipwrecks from satellite imagery or capturing hurricane data from airborne sensors, researchers, soldiers and explorers test the limits of the hardware and software. And they bring home some valuable lessons about high-stakes IT in the process.

MSG Thomas puts it succinctly: "We're action guys. We're out there just doing what we need to do."

comments powered by Disqus

Reader Comments:

Mon, Apr 24, 2006 Your Mom Space

i dunno...DUH!

Fri, Mar 31, 2006 Paul Darcy Hull UK

Just read the extreme computing article. Wow. I would love to read more about this sort of thing. Building a network and getting it running in an office....yawn yea ok it has to be done, but working at the limits well that is great. Thats where the cutting edge is. It might not be the very lastest kit but its the best use of equipment. Really enjoyed the piece. Thanks.

Tue, Mar 28, 2006 Pat Patterson Seattle, WA

Very interesting and well-researched article!

Add Your Comment Now:

Your Name:(optional)
Your Email:(optional)
Your Location:(optional)
Comment:
Please type the letters/numbers you see above

Redmond Tech Watch

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.