Zoo sticks neck out for VPN

Putting a Webcam to work at Sydney's zoos means animal keepers can swap a night on concrete floors for the comfort of their own homes. A virtual private network will let the keepers monitor their charges via the camera.

The main purpose of the VPN at Taronga Park - on Sydney Harbour - and Western Plains Zoo in the NSW central west town of Dubbo will be to improve security and give remote access to line managers and IT staff, Taronga's systems administrator John Inkson told Computerworld.

However, the rollout also has potential benefits that were impossible to put a price tag on, he said.

The VPN could be expanded to let zoo keepers or life sciences staff remotely monitor an animal that's close to giving birth, he said.

"The animal can't really tell people, 'I'm ready to drop it tonight'. The keepers watch an animal for a time and from [the animal's behaviour] decide when [the birth] is getting close.

"Staff here think nothing of spending seven nights on a concrete floor for the sake of their animal.

"In [dollar terms] it's not a huge pay off, but they will be more comfortable being able to monitor [the animals] from home. If it looks exciting enough, then they can come in," Inkson said.

On the security side, Inkson said the zoo had so far managed to avoid malicious infections such as Blaster because the network had no remote access capability, "so there were no strange machines connected into our network".

With patching now becoming laborious, Taronga opted for a scalable Watchguard Firebox X700 appliance in its IT centre to provide secure remote connections for around a dozen remote users supplied with Firebox SoHo 6 devices.

Apart from nailing down security concerns, Taronga is also using IT to run a genetically compatible dating agency to assist species propagation.

"They're basically databases developed by the global zoo community. They manage things like finding the best genetic breeding partner for an animal. For example, the best genetic breeding partner for an animal here might be in a zoo in Spain. By keeping track of all the genetic information for animals and their history globally, zoos can cooperate to find the best mate," Inkson said.

Serious monkey business may also come into focus via Webcam, with what Inkson describes as a way to allow academic researchers to observe Taronga's chimpanzees' enclosure over a dedicated ADSL link.

Taronga Park receives around 1.2 million visitors a year, while Western plains receives around 300,000 visitors.

Zoo business

300 users on 250 PCs (IBM)

VPN over Watchguard Firebox X700 and SoHo 6

Windows and Office XP SOE

Frame relay also allows redundant link with Western Plains

Financials running SAP on an AS/400

1.5 MB Internet connection

From 10 PCs in 1996 to 250 now

Web site externally hosted

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