By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2004-01-16 Print this article Print

Remote personnel, incompatible computer gear, unreliable power and communications lines, and equipment-disabling lightning strikes are just some of the obstacles confronting the technology managers supporting the United Nations' peacekeeping mission in Si

. 29, Eastern Sector Command, Koidu, Sierra Leone">

Oct. 29, Eastern Sector Command, Koidu, Sierra Leone

Arriving at the Koidu base, Majongwe takes the Cisco 3725 and goes to work in the cramped server room, promising the base administrator the network connection to the outside world will be down a half-hour at most, while he changes the router.

Mayordomo is ushered into the office of Lt. Col. Sohail Hamid, commanding officer for the Pakistani signal battalion assigned to provide communications support for this U.N. base. Before starting on his list of complaints, Hamid emphasizes that he and his staff are trying to be self-sufficient. "We will try to bother you less. And we are bothering you less," he says.

Still, this sector headquarters is responsible for about 4,000 troops at bases throughout the eastern part of the country and three military-observer teams with 15 to 20 members each. Hamid tells Mayordomo he needs more-reliable network services. In addition to the bad router and malfunctioning wireless-network node, Hamid complains about a backlog of e-mail account requests, lost e-mails and overall network congestion. Hamid can't provide his superiors with the quality of communications they expect if he can't rely on the U.N. network.

Mayordomo has his own agenda for this visit, which includes getting unauthorized computers, users and traffic off the network. Some of the congestion the Pakistanis are complaining about is of their own making, he says.

The Pakistanis have been connecting a lot of their own computers to the U.N. network, which is supposed to be against the rules. As a practical matter, U.N. policy on this point is somewhat conflicted, given that Pakistan's government is paid to provide the equipment its troops require, from guns to computers, rather than relying on the U.N. to equip them. Still, the lack of control concerns Mayordomo. "If, for example, your computer has a virus, you only need one to take down a network or propagate to other devices," he says. "I need a list of devices connected to the network, and I'm going to have to insist that they conform to our networking standards." He doesn't really want to ban all non-U.N. equipment, he admits, because that would put more pressure on him to replace it.

To reduce network congestion, there is some phone traffic Mayordomo would like to get off his network entirely—namely, the "welfare calls" that U.N. soldiers make to their families back home. He is encouraging Sierratel, the national phone company, and other carriers to reestablish service to this region, which would let him tell the soldiers to use the public phone system. The Pakistanis ought to be able to get better rates than the U.N. itself is charging. Hamid is interested, as long as access to U.N. phone lines will remain as a backup.

The Pakistanis also complain about a backlog in requests for IBM Lotus Notes e-mail accounts. But Mayordomo explains those accounts aren't free. He pays $35 for each Notes account and the DPKO is already paying IBM $1.2 million per year. Accounts have been multiplying unnecessarily as military personnel rotate in and out of the mission, without the old accounts being deleted. He needs the Pakistanis to provide a list of inactive accounts as soon as possible, and he wants to move to a system where Notes IDs for the military will be assigned by function and location rather than by the name of an individual. If military personnel want individual accounts for personal e-mail, let them use Yahoo Mail, he says.

But one of Hamid's biggest problems is communicating with a base in Kenema, another diamond-rich town about 50 miles to the south that has seen its share of war and violence. Like the other outposts in the region, Kenema is supposed to coordinate military and military-observer activities with the sector headquarters in Koidu, but electronic communications between the two has been poor. Personnel there can send e-mail, but whenever someone from Koidu tries to write them, the message is delayed or bounces back with an error message.

Mayordomo says he has heard this complaint before. "Remember I told you how to monitor transmission of e-mail, with a receipt for each stop?" he asks one of the junior officers in the room. "That would help us see where the bottleneck is." Maybe messages are being improperly routed to a mail server at headquarters, he says, but that's guesswork—forwarding the error messages would let his staff see the address of each server that handled a piece of mail, which would help them diagnose the problem properly.

The wireless network has also been unreliable, Hamid says, with five of the 14 Aironet boxes used to create the base's wireless local-area network currently out of commission. Some of the locations that have been without network access, such as the officers' quarters, aren't critical, but he wants service restored to an engineering compound and other facilities more critical to the base's operations.

UNAMSIL has experienced other wireless-networking problems. At headquarters in Freetown, palm fronds weighted down by rain blocked an Aironet connection to the heliport. In fact, most of the wireless-networking equipment at headquarters has been demoted to backup status, except for an access point that serves an "Internet café" in the stairwell.

And Mayordomo's own staff has complained about the Proxim wireless bridges he ordered to provide 100-million-bit-a-second wireless connections between the headquarters buildings. One failed to work during storms, even at short range and with the power cranked up. Another proved unable to reach a signal battalion across the bay that should have been well within range.

Mayordomo and Proxim both say the issue must be training, since the same equipment has been used successfully in other missions. Proxim will get a chance to repair its reputation on-site when technical staff come to test a billion-bit-a-second version of its bridges.(See Dossier) Because he has never been able to secure a large training budget, Mayordomo encourages vendors with long-term contracts to bundle training with their products.

But Mayordomo's most immediate problem is the Aironet boxes, wireless bridges used to connect one location with other wireless nodes. He hitches a ride to a nearby engineering compound, where he gets his hands on one of the dead Aironet units. After asking a few questions, he has a good idea of what killed this one.

The Aironet 350 is designed to run off inline power—electric power delivered over an Ethernet connection—much like a telephone that can function on the small amount of current coming over a phone wire. So when a lightning storm whipped up, the Pakistanis apparently thought the device was safe because it wasn't plugged into an electrical outlet. But it was probably jolted by an electrical surge that came over the network connection.

Hamid says his people have been following a directive to unplug equipment during storms. "Still, the lightning phenomenon is so great that sometimes we cannot catch it before the damage is done," he says.

Karuppiah uses one of the spare Aironet units he brought to replace the one that took a lightning jolt. And he is able to get another working again by using his laptop to reprogram it. But he can't fix everything. He will stay over in Koidu so that he can visit some of the other team sites in the region that have reported Aironet problems.

Having equipment burn out is a constant problem. "Bridges, switches and power supplies are consumables for us," Mayordomo says. "When I was in New York, I wondered, 'What, are you eating these for lunch?'" This sector office is the worst because of the intensity of the lightning in the mountains, he says.

He manages this problem by paying Cisco an extra 20% in return for what's essentially a no-questions-asked replacement policy for equipment that burns out within three years of purchase. The replacements he gets aren't necessarily new units, Mayordomo says, "but that's all right—refurbished is good enough."

Mayordomo says he is looking to see what else he can do about lightning strikes. Recently, he read about dissipation-array systems from Lightning Eliminators and Consultants. By discharging charged particles into the air, this technology is supposed to create an electromagnetic umbrella around an area, diverting lightning rather than attracting it like a lightning rod. Lightning Eliminators says Federal Express is using the technology to protect the computer systems powering its shipping hub in Memphis.

Many electrical engineers, however, dispute the science behind dissipation arrays, saying there is no proven way to deflect lightning. They believe Lightning Eliminators customers are protected by the other measures, such as improved grounding, that the vendor installs at the same time. Lightning Eliminators argues its critics are simply narrow-minded. Mayordomo figures the technology is at least worth exploring.

Returning to the base, Mayordomo finds Ambrose Majongwe looking dejected. "My day has been a total waste of time," he laments.

His sole task had been to replace a Cisco 3800 series router with a 3725 that would handle both data and phone calls. But he hasn't been able to get the 3725 to work. "On the bench, back at the office, it was working perfectly well. But it wasn't handling 200, 300 calls an hour then," he says. He keeps getting an error code indicating "IOS Error," meaning a problem with the Cisco Internet Operating System. He is able to reestablish an Internet connection and download another version of IOS from Cisco's Web site. But that one also crashes, as soon as he reconnects the router to the base's internal network. He downloads yet another IOS version. That crashes, too. "I'm going to have to take it back to the workshop and revive it," he says.

Back at mission headquarters in Freetown, one of Majongwe's colleagues is busy relaying an account of Majongwe's difficulties to Cisco tech support.

Nevertheless, at the end of their stay in Koidu, Majongwe takes two routers on the helicopter flight back—the one he came with and another malfunctioning unit that had been sitting on the shelf. And this time they get stowed like luggage.


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