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The Internet Hardware

The Men Who Fix the Internet 162

Posted by kdawson
from the physical-side-of-things dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Remember all those undersea cables breaking? PopSci.com introduces John Rennie, who '... has braved the towering waves of the North Atlantic Ocean to keep your e-mail coming to you. As chief submersible engineer aboard the Wave Sentinel, part of the fleet operated by UK-based undersea installation and maintenance firm Global Marine Systems, Rennie — a congenial, 6'4", 57-year-old Scotsman — patrols the seas, dispatching a remotely operated submarine deep below the surface to repair undersea cables.' The article goes on to outline the physical infrastructure of the Internet, including some of its points of vulnerability."
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The Men Who Fix the Internet

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  • I suggest we leave them that way. It will reduce spam, and make Dell hire locally for their call centers.

    • Yeah, they better stop flying in techs from overseas to fix my printers.

      Er, wait. They use local techs.

    • by tg123 (1409503)

      I suggest we leave them that way. It will reduce spam, and make Dell hire locally for their call centers.

      Please mod this last post up please there is insight here.

      I would welcome being able to understand what the person on the other end is saying.

      • by Cowmonaut (989226)

        You must never travel *anywhere* then, possibly not even within your own state. Understanding someone with a thick accent is just something all adults need to learn to deal with. Nevermind that most of the time they speak better English than your neighbor, though they may have a hard time understanding you as its A) not their primary language and B) you probably don't enunciate clearly either.

        I spend about half of every day speaking with technical support departments, some based in the US, some in Poland,

  • by Starteck81 (917280) on Monday March 16, 2009 @10:44PM (#27221199)
    Grounds keeper Willie of the undersea cables, at your service.
  • by ColdWetDog (752185) * on Monday March 16, 2009 @10:47PM (#27221217) Homepage

    The cables regularly fail. On any given day, somewhere in the world there is the nautical equivalent of a hit and run when a cable is torn by fishing nets or sliced by dragging anchors. If the mishap occurs in the Irish Sea, the North Sea or the North Atlantic, Rennie comes in to splice the break together.

    WTF are people dragging anchors around for? I would presume (and could be entirely wrong, as usual) that shallow water cable runs wouldn't be located next to anchorages. Do these sea going vessels have to stop for lunch or something?

    And why to we even allow fisherman to drag crap along the sea bottom? I thought industrial level trawling went out years ago?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 16, 2009 @11:04PM (#27221313)

      Dragging an anchor isn't something you try to do. It's something that happens when the weather is more then the anchor can handle. Better to drag the anchor then to rip the anchor capstan off the boat. Funny how boats and cables both anchor near the shore ... you know, that place where people are.

      • by Dan541 (1032000)

        My local street directory shows the submarine cables. Apparently this information is omitted from sea charts.

        Oh Wait... they probably just can't read.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 16, 2009 @11:07PM (#27221329)

      You anchor down if it's stormy and you can't escape it. With strong currents or wind you might end up dragging the anchor. That's the only explanation I have.

      • by BrokenHalo (565198) on Monday March 16, 2009 @11:51PM (#27221605)
        You anchor down if it's stormy and you can't escape it.

        That's pretty much it. The last thing a skipper enjoys is to be pinned against a lee shore by a gale. If he can't get into the safety of deep water, dropping the hook is sometimes the only option. Sometimes, if his hook is too small or if its chain is too short for the wind/current load, it'll drag. It's not a fun situation to be in; I've been there.
        • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

          by ColdWetDog (752185) *
          Yes, but. TFA seemed to indicate this was a rather common occurrence. So all of these commercial boats are losing their engines and being driven to shore routinely? Maybe somebody ought to be doing some preventative maintenance.
        • > Sometimes, if his hook is too small or if its chain is
          > too short for the wind/current load, it'll drag

          The interesting thing is that it's the weight of the chain that holds the anchor, not one of the flukes catching on something. A successful anchoring is when the anchor is on the bottom, in mud, and there are xx fathoms of chain piled up on top of it. Leastwise, 'twas so in my day.

          Once we were getting underway for a dependent's cruise and the CO was on the bridge and shouted "let's go!" and clapped his hands. An alert bridge talker heard him, misunderstood, and dutifully relayed "let go!" to the foc'sle. So the anchor was dropped about 100 yards off the pier (at 4-5 knots) and fun times ensued. The CO handled it well and had the grace to make a sheepish announcement a few minutes later on the 1MC. Good times.

          • That's a good story :). Howdy from a guy who served on an SSBN; I've got some good stories too, but I'd get in trouble with the Feds if I talked about them.
            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by Muad'Dave (255648)

              Do subs have anchors?

              PS - Thank you for your service. Serving on an SSBN is hard on sailors and their families, although the food is good.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by TheLink (130905)
              I think SSBN crew would actually be better for long term space missions than the Air Force people NASA seem to like.

              What do you think?

              The NASA keep doing all those psychological experiments to test how people will cope with long term space missions. Seems a waste of time and resources to me. Don't the US Navy already know all that stuff?

              I think it's easier to train a nuclear submariner to be an astronaut, than to train an airforce guy how to cope well with being confined in a metal can for months.
              • I completely agree. The first man in space was Alan Shepard, a Naval aviator. While he wasn't a subsurface-faring kind of guy, the Navy has historically contributed a lot of folks to the astronaut corps. I don't know how well represented submariners are in that group, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that there are quite a few bubbleheads who've gone into space :).
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 16, 2009 @11:46PM (#27221563)

      Did you never waatch Pirates of the Carribean? I seem to remember the equivalient of a hand-brake turn using anchor.

      Perhaps they used an internet cable to stop

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Goffee71 (628501)
      This site - PPC1 covers in detail a new cable project linking Australia to Guam and explains a lot of the hazards and work involved http://www.pipeinternational.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=22&Itemid=66 [pipeinternational.com]
    • by alecwood (1235578)

      And why to we even allow fisherman to drag crap along the sea bottom? I thought industrial level trawling went out years ago?

      And what made you think? Even scallop dredging is still big business (even in the US), and they're even less selective than trawling

    • by bob_jordan (39836)

      I guess the cables have to come ashore somewhere and you can't plan ahead for where ships will be when gales hit.

      Come to think of it, I wonder how many cables go straight across the middle of the atlantic. Is it still possible to pick up the internet and slip the earth out?

      Bob.

    • I thought industrial level trawling went out years ago?

      Nope - Not when there isn't anyone to enforce the laws.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Five Bucks! (769277)

      Factory freezer-trawlers are still in wide use. Portugal and Spain are always fishing on the Flemmish Cap of the Grand Banks just outside of Canada's 200 nautical mile limit.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flemish_Cap [wikipedia.org]

      • Factory freezer-trawlers are still in wide use.

        The real reason we need sharks with lasers. Big lasers.

  • Because anyone can still whoop Aquaman's butt.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Because anyone can still whoop Aquaman's butt.

      No, it's because they keep the flow of pr0n running.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Upon being advised that the North Atlantic cable had been cut by another fishing boat, Rennie exclaimed "I dinna cry when me own father was hung for stealing a pig. But I'll cry now!"

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 16, 2009 @10:59PM (#27221289)
    While there is loads of critical data that goes through these cables, I feel bad when these guys are working their asses off to make sure that 4chan or youtubes of a chimpanzee riding on a segway gets to its proper place.
  • Aren't there enough satellites up that we wouldn't need undersea cables anyway?
    • by Shikaku (1129753) on Monday March 16, 2009 @11:13PM (#27221355)

      Latency is a huge problem with that idea buddy.

    • by fractoid (1076465) on Monday March 16, 2009 @11:14PM (#27221361) Homepage
      There are enough satellites up there that we can get *some* communications without cables. Those satellite links suck at the best of times, though - if nothing else they have horrible latency, and can't approach the huge bandwidth of an undersea cable full of optic fibres. Just like in your own apartment, wireless is cool for convenience and for when you have a kitten (or fishing trawler) messing with your wiring, but cabling is always faster and better for fixed installations.
    • by CharlieG (34950) on Monday March 16, 2009 @11:28PM (#27221467) Homepage

      One HUGE propblem with satcoms, and why satcom pretty much went away for telephone - latency. A geosync sat orbits at 26200 miles (roughly), making a 2 way trip (up and down) a 52400 mile trip from point A to point B, or making it take a tad over .28 seconds. Now wait for your ACK to come back, another .28 seconds, and think about what you have. A slow, limited bandwith link. Generally, Satcoms have become used in one way "broadcast" type trasmissions (send the 30 minute TV show up, don't worry about the 1/4 second, as they are recording on the toher side) OR "Ad-hoc" communications, where you don't KNOW where the other station will be (a ship on the ocean, a TV news crew that is in Akron today, and Iowa next week, and even then, they try to keep the signals off the birds unless it's breaking news. You try to get it to a local affiliate, and land line it back)

      • by Brickwall (985910) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @12:40AM (#27221829)
        Iridium puts its satellites in low earth orbits to avoid the latency issue. It's geosynch orbits that are up high. But I do remember making telephone calls that went over geosynch satellite back in the 80's, and the latency is really annoying - you're never quite sure when the other person is finished talking, so you end up talking over each other, and having awkward pauses. When fibre became common, most telcos stopped using satellite.
        • by CharlieG (34950) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @01:01AM (#27221925) Homepage

          Correct. I forgot to bring up the Low Earth Orbit Sat Phones (aka Iridium), which is another kettle of fish. The big problem there is limited channels, again, your not going to have the kind of bandwith you need for serious internet (note, I said serious, like multiple OC3 stuff).

          Interestingly, NATO, with all their Sats, and Iridium (Remember, the US Military basically keeps them in business) is re-looking at HF radio comms. Ultra high speed 24 bit DSPs, and other technologies are making them clearer and more reliable (less dependent on operator skill), and they have the advantage of working when you have a limited sky view

        • by Atario (673917)

          It makes you wonder why TV shows still do live interviews via geosynchronous satellite link. They're constantly running into this egregious delay problem (exacerbated by their processing on either end). Why don't they get with the times and Internet it?

          • by alecwood (1235578)
            They do. That's why you see such low quality video feeds in a lot of news reports now - they're being sent by webcam/mobile phone standard transmission methods over the net
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by glwtta (532858)
            Why don't they get with the times and Internet it?

            Oh, they do even better - they now have holograms.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 16, 2009 @11:32PM (#27221483)

      Oh those kids! Never had to work with a megabit satellite link connected somewhere in Africa and try to send VoIP to America, haven't you?
      The latency is not the only problem, there are magnetic storms, other satellites crossing into the sight of yours, bad weather, and so much other crap that I can't even remember.
      That is why we need thick undersea cables or all your beautiful iPhones and other gadgets will be rendered totally useless...

    • Yeah but the lat sucks, don't forget the cost, and the fact that every time it rains you lose your signal, I'll pass on that, kthnx.
    • by pbhj (607776)

      Aren't there enough satellites up that we wouldn't need undersea cables anyway?

      Aren't there enough pigeons that we wouldn't need over-sky satellites anyway?

  • by dwhitaker (1500855) on Monday March 16, 2009 @11:15PM (#27221373) Homepage
    This is yet another example of the jobs which we rely on everyday but don't give much thought to. Also, this make me really think there is a great job out there to fit everyone. (When the economy improves that is.)
  • by martin-boundary (547041) on Monday March 16, 2009 @11:21PM (#27221419)
    Gimme Terabit factor nine! Kirk to Engineering, I need more downloads, Scotty!

    Aye Captain, but I don't know if my poor cables will take more.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ... and the article couldn't even get that right.

    Blech. For much more interesting reading, check out this classic:

    Mother Earth Mother Board [wired.com]

    • by Brickwall (985910)
      You beat me to it, but I agree that Stephenson's piece is fascinating reading. Someone with points please mod parent up.
  • by Clancie (678344) on Monday March 16, 2009 @11:44PM (#27221555)
    Holy crap! The Internet *is* a series of tubes! Evidence:Image from TFA [popsci.com]
  • by trawg (308495) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @12:37AM (#27221815) Homepage

    ...is a cool article up on Wired [wired.com] (look for the printable link option so it's all on one page) detailing an interesting adventure around the world and some of the history of undersea cables. Definitely worth a read.

    • by Slashcrap (869349)

      ...is a cool article up on Wired (look for the printable link option so it's all on one page) detailing an interesting adventure around the world and some of the history of undersea cables. Definitely worth a read.

      Getting a bit old now, but it is an awesome article. In fact it almost makes up for Anathem. Just add a few years of genital torture and we'll call it even.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ockegheim (808089)
      This article [wikipedia.org] details the building of the first transatlantic cables in the 1850s & 1860s. Definitely trickier to repair back then (lay another one)...
  • Vulnerability? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by AHuxley (892839) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @12:38AM (#27221821) Homepage Journal
    "The article goes on to outline the physical infrastructure of the Internet, including some of its points of vulnerability"

    Sean Gorman mapped out the US fiber-optic telco fiefdoms.
    Parts of his dissertation where "removed".
    http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2006/01/70040?currentPage=2 [wired.com]
    Getting back to the popsci 'news'
    The part I find interesting is the use of 'hubs'
    Are hubs (fiber locations?) for cost savings, lazy design, best design for a shareholder when burning tax payers re nation building, collusion between telcos, easy NSA access ?
    What do other parts of the world do ?
    • Re:Vulnerability? (Score:4, Informative)

      by tqft (619476) <ianburrows_au@yahoo . c om> on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @02:58AM (#27222365) Homepage Journal

      "What do other parts of the world do ?"
      The same thing

      "Are hubs (fiber locations?) for cost savings, lazy design, best design for a shareholder when burning tax payers re nation building, collusion between telcos, easy NSA access ?"
      All of the above
      At some point you need to connect network E from Elbonia to network P from PHiliBelphia and also networks a through z. This starts to get expensive real fast no matter how you do it. Doing it in one place lowers cost (hub) but focuses for a point of failure. As the article said - you can't get away from this. I like how they said the best way to prevent cascading network damage is to shutdown the "nearest" hub connections to the failed point to minimize the damage - like they do when the electricity transmission network or a generator goes off somewhere. It isn't optional and can't really be worked around - if you want random person E to get stuff from P then you need interconnects somewhere. Yeah you could do it with a lot (a real lot) of little interconnects all over the place - just don't and service them as your staff will always be in the field.

  • Fixed? Isn't the internet perpetually broken and therefore needing more investment in hardware and expertise?
  • I'd swap with this man if job is somewhere in South Pacific. Present location is a bit too cool.

  • by ItaliaMatt (581886) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @02:08AM (#27222155)

    Everytime we have a connectivity hiccup I am flooded with calls from our users asking "Is the Internet broken?"

    It takes everything in my power not to say "Yes. The Internet is, in fact, broken"

  • As I looked at the photo in the article of this brave warrior-engineer, I thought "So this is the man who keeps the porn flowing."

    And I couldn't help but notice his underwater robot seems to have a mech penis. He even calls it "The Beast".

  • Your doing it wrong (Score:5, Interesting)

    by FridgeFreezer (1352537) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @05:11AM (#27222825)

    From TFA:

    "If terrorists managed to gain remote access to a facility's command-and-control system, they could, for example, cause the generators to overheat and explode."

    If you can make a generator explode on command, you really are doing it wrong. Backup generators may be able to be remotely started, stopped, switched in/out and checked but you should not be able to do the equivalent of burnouts with them.

    Additionally, the article states that catastrophic failures would start to creep in after ~2 days of no human maintenance. WTF? Most exchanges and data centres I've been in are ghost ships 350 days a year aside from upgrades and config changes, how is it that such critical hardware can't tick over by itself for a month or so without going nipples skyward?

    Hell, the average telephone exchange, if you nuked everything around it, would be giving dialtone and DSL to the skeletons for at least a week, probably more depending on how much diesel is in the tanks.

    • by steelfood (895457) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @09:46AM (#27225163)

      Hell, the average telephone exchange, if you nuked everything around it, would be giving dialtone and DSL to the skeletons for at least a week, probably more depending on how much diesel is in the tanks.

      During the northeast blackout of '03, all of the utilities went out. Street lights, traffic signals, all went dark. Cell phone towers went out. There wasn't enough water pressure beyond 5 stories. There was gas, but no starter. But there was still a dialtone through the landline. And we could still make calls out, if our phone didn't require an external power source. Most of the handsets we use are cordless, but we have several of the simpler phones lying around for such emergencies.

      • Yes. This is why I don't get why people don't appreciate the value (at least in redundancy) of having a land line around. I'm gonna miss that when I go off to a residence hall this fall; it's very new and has all the latest amenities, Ethernet to every room, but alas, good old landlines are too old to be useful and worth supplying (or worth demanding), right?

    • by Renraku (518261)

      Except for the EMP effects, of course.

      All electronics are vulnerable, but communication and power systems are especially vulnerable. This is due to the long-run copper wires that serve as antennas to pick up the flood of electrons. If nuclear war DID happen, the first two things to be affected would be the power grid and the communication networks.

      • Sort of true - except (at least round here) all exchanges have lightning protectors on every single line from the outside that short any voltage spikes to ground and (mostly) protect exchange equipment. A direct lightning strike on a street or cable can still do damage and you'll probably have to change all the subs interface cards and re-cable the street in question, but the exchange itself is likely to survive.

        Granted a decent EMP blast near enough would kill it, but then I suspect if you're close enough

  • by Twide (1142927)
    Makes me Fix the internet twice a week.

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