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Venturing Out to the Edge

Venturing Out to the Edge

| 8/28/2013 11:16:45 AM

In Boundary Waters1675 Frenchmen Louis Joliet and Pere Marquette paddled and portaged from Canada to Arkansas and back, a journey of 2500 miles. In 1804, Lewis and Clark left St. Louis, MO, and paddled and portaged all the way to the Pacific Ocean. By comparison, my upcoming paddling and portaging vacation in the Boundary Waters will be pretty small potatoes. On the other hand, I’ll be roughing it in ways that those earlier adventurers could never have imagined, spoiled as I am by the amenities of the modern world.  Let’s face it, ordinary life used to be a lot like what we would nowadays call “camping.”  If Louis Joliet had visited the enormous, glittering palace at Versailles he would have discovered that it lacked indoor plumbing, even though the king was continually remodeling.  (They say that this led to, shall we say, inappropriate activities in various corners and stairways.  Apparently -- for all their fancy titles and fancy clothes -- the nobility of yore were about as house trained as a litter of three-week old Labrador puppies.)  Lewis and Clark would have discovered that the White House didn’t have indoor plumbing, either.  Heating and lighting would have been provided by open flame.  There would have been no air conditioning, no telephone, no electricity, and no television. And if you wanted to keep your food fresh you had to pack it on ice.  

That’s not civilization.  It’s camping. 

Like Louis, Clark, Joliet and Marquette, I’ll have to portage everything that I pack for my journey.  So traveling lean and light will be important.  On the other hand, I won’t be able to run over to a nearby supermarket if I’ve forgotten something important.  If you’re going to venture out past the edge of civilization you don’t just travel light, you have to travel smart.

Fortunately, operating out at the edge of civilization is actually part of my day-to-day job.  B&B devices help monitor everything from volcanoes in Iceland to pipelines on the tundra.  And that calls for special expertise.

Things are pretty straightforward if you’re trying to connect computer equipment in an office or a campus.  Suppliers and experts will be readily available, and you’ll be able to get help with everything from terminating connectors to pulling cables. Machines and humans will tend to share the same work spaces, so the machines won’t have to endure environments that humans wouldn’t consider livable.  Power and network infrastructure will be readily available.

Things start to get a bit more interesting out at the edge. What happens when you’re trying to establish connections for wells, aquifers, streams, tanks, trucks, containers, or remote instruments like those seismographs in Iceland? It’s not that things are necessarily more complex when you step out of the IT closet. In fact, I’d argue that they can often be much simpler.  For example, the network edge isn¹t where you normally need, or want, to put your bleeding edge gear. But it is a place that calls for careful planning.  Just like my paddling trip, where deciding to save weight by leaving an extra fuel bottle at home could have dire consequences, poor networking decisions at the network edge typically lead to results that will be magnified by the lack of easy access to civilization.

The farther you get from the safe IT closet, the scarier the networking wilderness becomes.  Your equipment will encounter crazy temperature swings and wild mixes of connectors and protocols. Power supplies may be unreliable or nonexistent.  Locations may be virtually inaccessible.  And getting technicians out there to troubleshoot problems in a timely manner may be a bit like trying to find an emergency dentist in Quetico Provincial Park.

So do it right the first time.  Deploy industrial grade equipment.  Work with experts who know your environment and who understand that “just reboot it” isn’t useful advice when devices are located out in the back of beyond.  You don’t want vendors who can only tell you what to do when things wrong, you want vendors who can tell you how to prevent things from going wrong in the first place.

And, depending upon where your networking projects take you, you may want to consider hanging your food bag from a tree branch.  If you forget, you’ll be sharing it with the bears.

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