How to stay connected in the wilderness

Author: jess.moore@jisc.ac.uk
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From research in volcanic regions of Iceland to education in remote corners of the English Peak District, networking can be challenging. This developing area of work for Jisc is being explored and discussed at Networkshop47, 9-11 April 2019.

Not many academics require hostile environment awareness training. But then, not many academic workplaces are like the British Geological Survey (BGS).

Peter Lyons-Lewis, head of IT at BGS, says matter-of-factly:

“You’ll be learning how to crawl through a minefield, then you get attacked, kidnapped, tied up and blindfolded, and interrogated.” 

Unreliable power sources

Peter is understated about these unorthodox connectivity situations. He says:

“You’re there to do a job that requires networking, but that can get challenging when you’re working in remote locations. Very often, there’s no internet connection, and you often need to take advantage solar power or wind power. Wind power can sometimes be overcome by the wind itself, which has been known to destroy the equipment.”

Founded as the world’s first national geological survey in 1835, the BGS carries out systematic surveying, monitoring and research. It has seismometers and seismographs to record earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and explosions, and geomagnetic observatories, providing scientists, IT staff and infrastructure for ship-based marine drilling and coring operations across the world.

Next time you hear about ash from an Icelandic volcano causing mayhem in airspace, spare a thought for the network engineers. According to Peter, not only did Grímsvötn’s 2011 eruptions cause issues but Icelandic volcanoes, in general, can be tricky beasts. He explains,

“BGS has a number of observatories on volcanoes. Periodically, teams go to check on the equipment. We’ve had a situation where an observatory has just vanished, fallen down a crevasse.”

Connecting students and educators

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Screenshot of networking VR

Jisc is similarly aware of the problems remote and wild locations can pose to connectivity.

Back in 2013, for example, senior innovation developer Matt Ramirez worked collaboratively with the University of Manchester to create virtual field trips for MSc geology students to use in the Peak District. Matt explains:

“The problems that we were trying to solve with technology couldn’t be addressed with traditional means. A lot of international students were often only in the UK for a semester, which meant they missed the opportunity to go on important field trips.”

Immersive technology enabled these students to visit locations in their own time, examining the environment ‘guided by’ qualified academics, and with academic content.

“Connectivity wasn’t too much of an issue on the top of the Peaks, but in areas that didn’t have network coverage, we came up with solutions to tether the devices to mobile hotspots.”

A current service that is being developed focuses on immersive technology and its benefit to education. The hope is that by using technologies such as VR, remote and isolated areas will see improvements in collaborative research and learning, allowing colleagues thousands of miles away to work together more effectively. Additionally, Jisc has worked on bespoke projects with individual institutions.  

Matt added:

“We’re looking to solve problems and connect people. This links to Jisc’s vision of the future with Education 4.0”.

Anything is possible

Back at BGS, ships are a major preoccupation for computer infrastructure manager, Alan Douglas. He says:

“One of our projects collects scientific research from around the world – but every time, it’s a different country, a different ship, a different ship supplier, and a totally different set of objectives. You may get satellite cover, but it isn’t guaranteed – and you don’t know if it’s going to work with your equipment until you get there.

“One of the things we’re looking at in the Arctic is how to achieve high-speed communications between three ships that are moving at the same time and not necessarily in line with each other. That was a big head-scratcher, but it’s not impossible.”

What, if anything, can those in the networking communities learn from BGS’s experience? Peter laughs:

“Appreciate the bandwidth you’ve got…and don’t give up!”

And Alan?  He concludes:

“I’d say that almost anything’s possible.” 

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This article is based on a feature from the Networkshop47 magazine 2019. Delegates can hear Peter and Alan’s closing keynote, ‘Networking in difficult environments’, on day three of Networkshop, on Thursday 11 April at 11.45 in lecture theatre 2.

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How to stay connected in the wilderness
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