If it ain't broke !

‘If it ain't broke, don't fix it' might be the motto of the technology team supporting researchers at France's Antarctic base, Dumont d'Urville, which lies at around 140 degrees longitude, due south of Australia.

The base plays host to around two dozen staff in winter and up to 70 in the summertime, who use the facility as a base for a range of experiments as well as venturing on field expeditions into the continent's heart. For the most part, individual researchers use their own notebook computers running standalone applications for tasks such as monitoring bird numbers, accessing medical information or maintaining spare parts inventories.

Around 20 Windows NT 4-based desktop computers are installed at the station, linked via UTP cabling to a Novell NetWare 4 network server that's been humming away for the last three years without an upgrade. Maintenance visits once a year ensure things continue running smoothly, and the intentional decision not to give visitors technical training ensures that they're unlikely to misconfigure the desktop systems. One or two administrative staff are, however, given troubleshooting skills to deal with the rare hiccup.

The choice to stick with the old version of NetWare was due to more than slackness, said Patrice Godon, head of technical services with the Plouzané-based French Institute for Polar Research and Technology.

"We chose NetWare 4 because it supports DOS applications, while Windows NT Server only supports applications running in Windows," he explained. "NT does not like DOS applications to directly manage printers and interface cards. If we have interface cards working with very specific scientific instruments in DOS, they work well in DOS; we don't try to push them to work in Windows NT."

Despite the perception that Antarctica is a hostile environment for equipment, Godon said administering the network isn't much more difficult than it would be on a network in any office building in the world: "Computers are just a tool, and [administering them] is not very difficult," he said.

Not even electricity is an issue: even though the station is totally reliant on generated power, installed uninterruptible power supplies ensure the systems continue running smoothly. Not that they're needed: "Generators are permanently installed," said Godon. "We have no power interruptions; once a year, for a few minutes, would be the average. There is less interruption in Antarctica than here [in France]."

Communications, he continued, remains the biggest technology-related issue for the French teams. Connections to the INMARSAT satellite network provide direct fax, voice and data communications out of the continent, and a planned equipment upgrade will next year improve e-mail transmission capabilities.

The French authority's next major IT planning will come in around two years, when Concordia a new base being constructed along with Italy that will be the first new inland Antarctic station since Russia opened Vostok in 1957. Godon expects the new station will have more than a dozen desktop PCs, but has yet to nail down a formal architecture.

"We will fit the buildings with network cable as we do here, but it's two years in the future so it's not fixed as to what we'll use. But that's not the important thing; we can always [transfer] information on Zip disks; the network is only being installed because it's more convenient."

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