When phoning home is easy

While most Antarctic bases must economise on high-cost satellite communications, a fortuitous deal with the South African Department of Environmental Affairs has helped researchers at that country's SANAE IV base ensure continuous data, fax and phone connections that have bridged the distance back to South Africa.

Constructed from 1993 to 1998, SANAE IV is the newest permanent base on Antarctica, anchored in Antarctic rock at Vesleskarvet, 170 km inland at 2ºW longitude. A 3300 square-metre assemblage of research and living facilities, the fluorescent orange base is elevated 5 metres above the ground and hosts a summertime population of up to 80 people studying physical, earth, oceanographic and life sciences areas such as the ozone layer and auroral events. Its predecessor, SANAE III, was abandoned five years ago and now rests under 30 metres of accumulated ice and snow.

Around 30 networked workstations and servers support applications under Windows, Linux, Novell NetWare, DOS and even the QNX real-time operating system. The last non-Intel PC to be used in the station was an HP 9000 workstation used for ozone experiments since 1991, which had been running without problems until a floppy drive recently broke. It has since been replaced with an 80486-based PC running HP emulation software, which also provides networking capabilities for easily relaying data back to South Africa.

The intensely dry atmosphere in Antarctica has created major problems with static electricity, which has required anti-static mats at every terminal and necessitated the installation of 4 km of fibre-optic cabling that's terminated with a short length of UTP at each computer. For the bits running through the -20º temperatures outside, cabling is insulated and elevated on stilts so as not to be irretrievably buried by constantly accumulating snowdrifts.

Equipment failures also pose challenges. The impossibility of getting replacement spares from commercial vendors drove the SANAE IV team to intentionally avoid name-brand systems and install virtually no notebook PCs, which are hard to repair. Instead, they build white-box PCs that are fixed using parts from other working systems.

Despite such logistical issues, physicist and de facto network administrator Carl Bellingan said managing IT has been surprisingly uneventful during his four months at SANAE IV. "IT in Antarctica is not that different than in a normal country," he said. "You build it up in your mind, but it's been remarkably unsurprising. As with anything down here, the governing theory for the entire setup is that you make plans and learn from what's gone before and that extends from IT to cooking."

Perhaps the biggest challenge of the job is meting out access to the base's satellite connection, which provides separate voice, fax and 32Kbps data channels. Because a government contract allowed SANAE IV to get continuous satellite access free of high per-minute costs, email and Web browsing are possible at normal dial-up speeds.

But spam is still a problem: "somebody sent us about 7MB of absolute rubbish, which is all good and well but we really don't have the bandwidth," says Bellingan, who still hasn't figured out how to get the South African ISP servicing the base to vet emails before they're sent. Similar problems arise during summer months, when up to 70 visitors jump onto the 60-extension PABX to compete for voice calls back to South Africa.

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