This past weekend, I was in California meeting with people involved in the Heard Island expedition. Just five months from now, the ship is expected to arrive at the island after ten or eleven days at sea. With departure so soon at hand, preparations are in full swing, and boxes are being assembled for shipping to South Africa.
This weekend we discussed the protocol for preparing computers to come on the expedition. Usually, most people think little about computers connecting to a network: either it has a connection or it doesn’t. If there’s a connection, we typically have a relatively high data bandwidth and pages load quickly.
However, on Heard Island, although we will have satellite communications to keep us connected, the data bandwidth will not be especially high. More to the point, when data costs $7/MB, economizing bandwidth is essential. Sure, we can choose not to load webpages with lots of images, or watch videos on YouTube, but there’s another issue: automatic updates.
Many computer programs (e.g. Windows, web browsers, anti-virus, etc.) like to automatically download and install updates. Some of these can be quite large. It is essential, therefore, that immediately prior to the expedition, all updates be turned off (and a list made of which were turned off, so they can be turned on again upon our return to the networked world). The only network traffic which should go over the satellite link should be traffic which we explicitly allow, that which is needed for the successful completion of the expedition. Yes, we might check email occasionally, or write a blog post or tweet, but we will do that sparingly. Automatic updates will not be so conscientious, and will incur significant costs.
Already we are going through the software installed on the computers—both expedition computers and personal computers—and making a list of programs which automatically phone home and check for updates. Those will need to be disabled before the expedition leaves port.