Extreme IT: Battling dust, heat and bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq

How IT pros keep communications running in the desert and under fire

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Dedham: We have a Cisco-based router network. On the transmission side, we're predominantly satellite-based, with everything from very small terminals — 2.4-meter dishes — up to your big huge dishes, in about 93 different locations. On the server side, it's a combination of Dell and Sun servers — the majority is Dell throughout Afghanistan.

Can you describe your data centers in a little more detail?

Dedham: At Bagram, we have a complete fiber-optic LAN infrastructure, with about 155 communications closets. I think it's about 14,000 users on that LAN. But we also provide IT and comm service to about 98 different forward operating bases [FOBs] throughout Afghanistan. Some of them are pretty small, with just a small satellite dish and a handful of computers; some are large, with a complete fiber-ring infrastructure. And some are in the middle, with hub-and-spoke local-area networks.

Khyber Pass

Afghanistan's mountainous terrain.

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So we support everything from a small point of presence to a complete state-of-the-art fiber-optic network. There are several units throughout Afghanistan that provide support for all those different FOBs. To give you a rough number, there are about 500 to 600 communications and IT personnel spread throughout the country.

In Bagram, there are really three data centers on top of the communications closets I mentioned. The biggest one is probably about 50 feet by 30 feet — state-of-art, raised floor, two stories, environmental control, dust prevention.

The other two are a little smaller, probably 20 feet by 10 feet — one has a raised floor, the other one's a little more ad hoc. Each has about 12 42U racks; the large one has a good 40 or 50 full 42U racks on the top floor and another 40 or 50 on the bottom floor. We also turned a large marble hallway into a data processing center because we just ran out of space.

Fielden: We actually support about 15 different operating locations. Focusing on Balad, we've got a fairly robust infrastructure out here. We have a combination fiber-optic cable and copper-based backbone throughout the base. We have satellite communications and microwave capabilities, and we have the added responsibility of maintaining all of the air traffic control and landing systems.

Airlifting a comms truck

Airlifting a communications assemblage.

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As far as our data center — which I'll call the network control center — currently we're in a van roughly 40 feet by 15 feet stuffed with 30 different racks of equipment.

Why are you still in a van and not in a permanent structure?

Fielden: We don't really know how long we'll be out here at Balad, so we're trying to make sure we can easily relocate or pull out if the decision is made to do so.

We actually have several vans that we interconnect together. So the network control center, the data warehouse, is in one van; I have the control facility for circuit routing in a second van of about the same size; I've got a phone switch in another van; I've got a monitoring center in yet another van.

The vans get flown in and dropped on-site with some minimal equipment installed, and as the base population grows, we go in and add additional equipment.

Also, this used to be an Iraqi air force base, so we've taken over some of the buildings and house some of our comm facilities, office space, work centers and whatnot in those facilities.

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