Cool runnings

Cool runnings

Life on 'the ice' presents unique challenges to the IT team of Antarctica New Zealand. MIS finds out how the group survived a recent satellite failure that cut off its communication system, and how it is like to work with seals, penguins and eternal snow as part of the landscape.

Imagine six months in freezing cold Antarctica, cut off from the rest of the world amid months of darkness. Such is the fate of 19 Antarctica New Zealand staff that left Christchurch in late February and last October to 'winter' down at Scott Base until October 2005.

Fortunately, the base no longer relies on a short wave radio to stay in touch, though for a few long days in January, it nearly had to.

Scott Base made headlines over the summer when the Intelsat 804 satellite failed 32,000 miles above the earth. Communications links were cut across much of the South Pacific for several days, disrupting banking, international phone and Eftpos services.

Links were restored using another satellite, but at Scott Base, this was only a temporary measure as the curvature of the earth, coupled with its site in the shadow of Mount Erebus, prevented the replacement Intelsat satellite offering sufficient service each day.

Antarctica New Zealand's communications services are supplied by Telecom New Zealand, which even has three pay phones down on the frozen continent - one at Scott Base and the other two at the nearby McMurdo Base.

Telecom service technician Steve Locke (now replaced by Bede McCormick for the winter season) was on summer duty when the satellite failed at 11.32am on Saturday January 15. Locke used the unaffected satellite link belonging to the Americans at McMurdo and phoned Telecom's network operating centre in Hamilton, where he was fully told the situation.

Intelsat was already working on a replacement satellite that weekend, but Scott Base had "a big white mountain (Mount Erebus) in the way", explains Telecom NZ International project manager John Warriner, who himself summered on the ice 30 years ago and has been back for a few work trips since.

Intelsat, Warriner continues, suggested another satellite covering the Asia-Pacific, but it "wobbled". After a week of trying to use this satellite with limited success, Telecom concluded a deal to use a satellite from another company PanAmSat, which operates several dozen satellites globally.

This meant Steve Locke driving nearly 5 kilometres from Scott Base to an earth station to steer a 9.3m satellite dish into a new position, using its rack-mounted antennae controller.

"You have this controller, 50 centimetres high, you push buttons and electronics swing the dish around. It's just a case of putting in new information and it does it automatically," says Warriner.

In the past six months, Telecom also upgraded various 'firmware' at the station, satellite modems, convertors, and the satellite datalinks between Scott Base and Christchurch, where Antarctica New Zealand is based.

Telecom also carried out maintenance and repaired a few faults, including a major break on the power cable between Scott Base and the Earth station. The 10pm failure meant no lights, power or phone or power until Locke restored links within four hours using a portable generator.

"There was unseasonable warmth this summer - five days where it exceeded 5°C - which caused a lot of water. Moisture gets everywhere and that caused the power cable to go bang," Warriner explains.

Mike Mahon is the IT manager of Antarctica NZ and has spent several winters in Scott Base, in addition to his regular summer visits.

Interviewed in his office close to Christchurch Airport, Mahon says managing the satellite bandwidth is increasingly important.

Thus, last year, the organisation rolled out Allot NetEnforcer to apply more traffic shaping to the datalink. This followed several years' use of Mail Marshall and Web Marshall, which also restricts the size of all email traffic going to and from the ice.

"We all want more bandwidth but our satellite link is only so big. If we want more bandwidth, there is not a huge technical restraint, more a case of paying Telecom NZ for more bandwidth. We are funded entirely by government. Do we spend

an extra $50,000 on a datalink or on helicopter hours for science support?" Mahon explains.

Before 1991, telecommunications at Scott Base consisted of booking a phone call days in advance and then shouting down a HF radio phone-patch when your turn came. Users suffered sore ears as the method involved pushing the telephone handset hard against one ear to try and hear the voice down on the ice and pushing your index finger hard into the other ear, trying to cut out any background noise at your end. Atmospheric conditions would sometimes prevent radio transmission.

Thus, Telecom and the then-named NZ Antarctic Program built a satellite earth station above Scott Base at Arrival Heights, the only place where the Intelsat could be "seen". Telecom engineer Robin McNeill, who headed the 1991 project, adapted a Nortel Meridian PABX as the local switch.

Over the years, Antarctica NZ increased its bandwidth bought from Telecom, gradually from dial-up modems to a dedicated link of 9.6Kbs, to 19.2 and eventually 64Kbs. Last year, Telecom spent $300,000 implementing frame relay data circuits to the ice. Antarctica NZ then upgraded to a 64/128K data circuit and Telecom also installed a separate videoconference circuit using Polycom equipment on trial from Asnet.

TV1 and TV3 used this videoconference facility for live television last year during the launch of the Hillary Field Centre.

Pre-internet days

Before the days of email, FTP, and the internet, there was no way for all scientific data could have left Antarctica over winter when the planes were not flying. Thus, the scientists using various monitoring devices might not know for several months whether the equipment was faulty and produced useless data.

Some results from experiments were relayed back to New Zealand via HF radio with other results depending on the skills of the technicians. Now, the satellite link and internet lets scientists manage their own data and experiments remotely.

"We have scientists in the US accessing their data directly from Arrival Heights (one of the labs) and others downloading experiments while you sleep. That frees up our science technicians, removing them from mundane tasks of transforming data onto disks, CDs or other storage media," Mahon explains.

"Basically, there's no limitation to the datalink speed, it's just a matter of how much we want to spend," he says.

Thus, IT must argue its corner with other sections of Antarctica New Zealand.

"Each year we have a planning session. Requests for IT support come down to the corporate services manager and I. We basically use that as an input into our current and long-term IT strategies. We all generate business cases, which go to the management team for either approval or further discussion. Once the management team, the CEO, or board sign off, it just forms the basis of our capital expenditure program," Mahon explains.

Unlike other countries, Antarctica NZ does not directly employ scientists. Instead, they are funded and employed by universities or the government's Marsden Fund or FORST. Antarctica NZ provides the logistics to approved science and non-science events.

Antarctica New Zealand, which employs 25 in Christchurch and up to 30 on the ice, is a standard Microsoft office. It also uses Navision for a variety of financial and purchasing requirements, along with other packages such as PayGlobal and DBTextworks.

The organization has some 65 desktops and hand-helds, about 30 of each, with two servers on Scott Base and five in Christchurch based on Windows 2000 and HP hardware.

Staff at Scott Base can access part of the Navision system using a Citrix metaframe, to make the most of limited bandwidth. Wellington-based FX Net-works is their ISP, with Datacom Systems in Christchurch supplying extra specialists and hardware when required, both in Christchurch and on the ice.

Mahon describes Scott Base as having "relatively basic" facilities, so unlike the nearby American Crary lab, which is like a mini-university. The US researchers do much more processing work on the ice, while their Kiwi counterparts are encouraged to get their samples out and process these at their home institutions.

Typically, Antarctica NZ puts 400 people through Scott Base over the (October to February) summer. At the base itself, staff and scientists work in a pleasant 20°C, regardless of how cold it is outside, often wearing jeans and t-shirts. But even the controlled temperature environment has its hazards.

"The biggest problem to computers is static because of lack of humidity. All the workstations sit on anti-static mats. People are trained to touch the mats or discharge themselves to something metal before they pick up a phone, touch a computer or any other electronic device.

"The phone system there can lock up from a good static blast through a handset. Static discharges through a keyboard can also occasionally lock up a computer," Mahon explains. Another challenge is finding the right staff, with the isolation enforcing a need for good people/customer service skills, as well as technical competencies.

Current projects this winter include fitting out the new Hillary Centre, running new fibre optics for the computer networks between the centre and the Hatherton labs, 200 metres away, where the servers and communications equipment are.

Mahon visits Scott Base each October to train the new technicians on performing scientific experiments and help with any major upgrades. Such a trip may last four to six weeks in addition to other short summer trips. Otherwise, he is based in Christchurch.

Mahon says he has always wanted to work on the ice since prior to working as a technician at the University of Canterbury. A co-worker had spent winter in Antarctica during the 1960s. "He always spoke of it with a twinkle in his eye and encouraged me to apply."

On the ice

In the 1980s, Mahon worked for Comaint Systems as a senior engineer who served Antarctica New Zealand, and he helped the agency maintain an Apple Mac-based system (now Win2K).

Attracted to the variety and "interesting people" at Scott Base and the neighbouring American McMurdo Base, Mahon first spent winter there in 1992, then in 1996, after which he took up his current full-time role.

He was born in Napier and has been living in Christchurch for more than 20 years. With no wife and children, Mahon says he "just has to organise someone to house sit and feed the cat" when he is in Scott Base.

While some people with partners have gone to Scott Base for four to 12 months, from the staff that are single, "there have been a few marriages as a result of trips to Antarctica," he reveals. "Some people also change their jobs or focus on life on getting back. People have time to reflect on their lives. When I start getting bored with visiting the ice, or regarding this as another job, then it is time to leave. But that could be a while."

On the ice, there is no typical day, with work a mix of maintenance and training, maybe liasing with researchers, keeping an eye on issues in the Christchurch office and talking to subcontractors.

Office hours are typically 8am to 5pm, six days a week, with social activities such as sports, bingo, soccer and bowling, at the US McMurdo Base, which, like a small town, can have up to 1200 people.

Restrictions are imposed on where staff can go. They are also prohibited from travelling alone as the ice and its wildlife can be dangerous.

There are established routes for walking, skiing or taking wildlife photos. Mahon says there is a local tradition for summer and winter swims, wearing just a pair of shoes in water that feels a relatively warm -1.8°C compared with the -30°C plus air temperature.

"We cut a hole through two to five metres of ice. I have done it four times but the novelty has definitely worn off," Mahon adds.

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