Due South with the British Antarctic Survey

Linux now facilitates scientific research in the Atlantic Ocean and Antarctica.
Software Support

Software support for Linux is already immense, and growing rapidly. Of particular importance was our need to use the RSI Inc. Interactive Data Language (IDL) to develop processing tools and visualize our data in near real time. IDL is a powerful data-visualization tool, and RSI Inc. recognized the power of Linux several years ago by choosing to support it. Using Linux IDL, a complete data-processing suite was developed for two new instruments deployed during the AMT which are still in active use today. We also had a need to effectively communicate and work on collective documents during our time at sea. Most users choose MS Word for this purpose, and using Caldera Wabi 2.0, we were easily able to supply this application. This, coupled with Linux's ability to mount Novell Netware volumes, meant that we truly had the best of both worlds: access to all our UNIX file systems plus the Netware volumes and associated applications. In fact, we found certain applications ran significantly more reliably under Wabi than they did under their native operating system.

For example, the Wabi interface allowed us to manipulate (independent of the ship's logging system) a Campbell Scientific Data Logger located on the forward mast via short-haul modem communications connected to the Linux desktop. Using Campbell's own data logger software under Windows 95, we found that significant drifts in the system date-time stamp of 10min/day were confusing the data logger, which is auto-adjusted to keep the data logger time in sync with the PC time. The only solution was a system restart every 6 hours or so in order for Windows 95 to grab a correct time on startup. We found that under Linux Wabi, these problems no longer existed.

Linux in Other Areas

The British Antarctic Survey has written custom software to allow its ships and bases to send and receive electronic mail with the rest of the world using standard Internet e-mail addresses. It was decided to write custom software so that mail could be compressed more efficiently than when using standard protocols, and this in turn reduces costs as it decreases the amount of expensive satellite air time required.

When considering all the requirements, it became clear that a system based around Sendmail running on a UNIX workstation was an almost ideal solution. This solution could be easily implemented on our ships and bases which already had Sun SPARC workstations. As for two smaller bases, it was decided to send PCs running Debian Linux. Again, Linux proved to be an inexpensive but professional solution to a problem. It would have been difficult to justify the expense of Sun SPARCs for the smaller bases, whereas it was relatively inexpensive to install Linux on a couple of older PCs which still performed well. The fact that BAS chose to use Linux to perform Antarctic communications with two of its bases shows its trust in the stability of Linux, as the communications systems are vital to the normal operation of bases.


Without Linux, the computing options for these types of operations are simple: either pay large amounts of money for proprietary systems, or suffer at the hands of a less versatile operating system. Linux changes all that. We are able to function at a professional level at a minimum cost with all of the connectivity, reliability, software choices and versatility that Linux offers. Support for Linux within the British Antarctic Survey and Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research is increasing. Indeed, it is an officially supported operating system at both institutions and not a toy which the IT hackers play with.

Many more users are requesting Linux for reasons as diverse as wanting to run geophysical processing software on remote islands in the southern Atlantic to simply wanting to run their PC as an intelligent X terminal. Today Linux offers a truly cost-effective off-the-shelf solution for all of our requirements that rivals anything else available in the marketplace. Linux is now being recognized for what it is-a truly outstanding operating system that has grown immensely over the last few years thanks to dedicated individuals and groups working in cooperation with others.

Craig Donlon is a research fellow at the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research. In between moving from the mile-high community of Boulder, Craig can be found at the Applied Space Institute, European Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, and hacking satellite and ship data on his Linux machine. He can be contacted at cjdn@colorado.edu.

James Crawshaw works for the British Antarctic Survey as a UNIX support engineer based at their headquarters in Cambridge, although two to three months a year are spent in Antarctica serving on board their research ships and bases providing general computing support. He can be contacted in Cambridge at james.crawshaw@bas.ac.uk.



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War in Antarctica! Is it reality?

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War in Antarctica! Is it reality? http://antarcticaland.tripod.com/antarctica.html