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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How long does it take to get a forward base back up if it's hit?

Dedham: In those three cases, they had to switch over to what we refer to as "single-channel communications" — that's just radio. Tactical satellite radio or high-frequency communications had to wait until their network connectivity was re-established, which took anywhere from 24 to about 96 hours. It required us to airlift new terminals to those sites in a sling underneath a helicopter; sometimes it took more than a day because bad weather prevented us from flying.

A lot of the terminals we use for network connectivity aren't in a van; they're modular cases that can be lifted by Black Hawk helicopter. We refer to them as POPs, point-of-presence terminals. They're very small, but they can provide connectivity to those very small outposts. That's very important in any counterinsurgency fight — having a network that lets us distribute full-motion video and provide access to databases gives us a real advantage.

Tower repair in Iraq

Tower repair in Iraq. Click to view larger image.

Bullock: What these guys do

is different from most commercial networks, because while most of them just have to provide one consolidated LAN or WAN, we actually have to provide multiple distinct networks. One is SIPRNet, which stands for Secret Internet Protocol — it's a classified network. We also provide NIPRNet, which is the Not Secret Internet Protocol.

And in many cases, we provide a third network, JWICS [Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System], which is a top-secret network. Unclassified, secret, top secret: three different networks that don't touch each other at all, and they're all provided in many cases at very austere, very small locations.

Fielden: For Balad, that's very true. We're providing all three of those networks. At other bases, we're providing SIPRNet and NIPRNet connectivity, and at some of our still-smaller forward operating locations, we're just providing NIPRNet.

Dedham: In Afghanistan, we use virtual LANs to distribute our networks. There are seven different networks we provide: the three they mentioned, plus plain old Internet; and then we have two NATO classified networks, and finally a bigger secure coalition network for countries outside of NATO. So seven different networks that we're running, with the associated information systems: e-mail, databases and so on.

What's the most challenging aspect of doing IT in your environments?

Moon dust

Moon dust in Iraq. Click to view larger image.

Fielden: The conditions that cause the most heartache are the heat in the spring and summertime, and the dust. It doesn't rain that much, so we don't have an issue with moisture. But the heat and the dust tax our equipment pretty good.

One of our regular duties is to change the filters in the air conditioners, and then dust. And dust. And when you think you're done, dust one more time. The vacuum cleaner is a critical piece of equipment out here.

Dedham: The dust is a huge problem. We refer to it as "moon dust" — it's not like the dust you might experience in the United States.

We had a call manager go bad one day. It had been in the system for a little over a year, and when we opened it up, there were literally four inches of moon dust covering all the circuit boards. The heat buildup caused a portion of one of the circuit cards to short-circuit and melt. Besides that, the dust gets into the fans, and they start to fail, which prevents the equipment from being cooled, which causes it to fail.

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