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Using Outlook From Orbit 268

Posted by timothy
from the how-rms-uses-outlook dept.
Pigskin-Referee writes with this excerpt from Office Watch: "On the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station they use Microsoft Outlook 2003, but not quite in the same way that us earthbound Earthlings do. The space shuttle Atlantis is orbiting the earth right now and the crew exchange emails with the ground a few times each day. Bandwidth is a constraint and you don't want the busy crewmembers bothered with spam or unnecessary messages so NASA has a special system in place. The crew use fairly standard laptops running Microsoft Outlook (currently Outlook 2003) with Exchange Server as the email host, but they don't link to the server using any of the standard methods."
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Using Outlook From Orbit

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  • Pah! In soviet spacestation we constrain bandwidth!
    • by sakdoctor (1087155) on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:15PM (#30755424) Homepage

      When NASA first started sending up astronauts, they quickly discovered that Mozilla thunbird would not work in zero gravity.
      To combat the problem, NASA scientists spent a drunken weekend and $12 billion on Microsoft Outlook and Exchange licensing to develop a mail server that works in zero gravity, upside down, covered in stale beer, and old pizza boxes, and at temperatures ranging from below 10 to 25 degrees Celsius.

      The Russians used Mutt.

    • In Soviet space station, bandwith constrains YOU!

      (was that the first "in soviet russia" joke that was actually factally correct?)

  • 80's tech (Score:5, Insightful)

    by prgrmr (568806) on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:10PM (#30755316) Journal
    They are using Outlook/Exchange like a BBS that sends in digest mode only.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Tetsujin (103070)

      They are using Outlook/Exchange like a BBS that sends in digest mode only.

      Actually the comparison is pretty much spot-on. When they're in transmission range, they download the day's messages as a QWK file...

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Jawn98685 (687784)
      Can you say "FidoNet"?
      BTW, what's ZMH for Earth Orbit?
    • by OverlordQ (264228)

      Just seems like it could be done a lot easier shuttling around gzipped mbox files.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Em Emalb (452530)

      Yeah, but it works. Don't see an issue here.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by sznupi (719324)

        The question then is why use Outlook for such an awkward, for that tool, setup?

        Familiarization with it and therefore minimizing training needs? Hm, I guess Orion might use webmail (or generally web 2.0) UI...

      • Re:80's tech (Score:4, Interesting)

        by BitZtream (692029) on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @05:19PM (#30756374)

        They're doing it to save bandwidth. Yet they probably spend more on bandwidth dealing with human error issues in the process than they would if the system was engineered properly in the first place.

        You don't see an issue because you aren't an engineer trying to save every drop of energy/bandwidth/processing time possible.

        Basically, you're a java or C# developer when then need C and assembly developers with a clue.

        Custom hacks when there are already systems (even build into EXCHANGE!) to do EXACTLY what they need to do are beyond stupid. Its one thing to use a custom hack so you don't get tied into a vendor, but their hack is entirely tied to their vendors so that rules that reason out.

        Next you do it because you have a requirement that no existing solution fills in properly, which is certainly not the case here. As I already said, even Exchange will be happy to do store and forward batching on a schedule. A tiny exchange server (or a more efficient/less resource intensive alternative) on the space station could be designed to consume pretty much no energy unless it was actually in use.

        In short, this is clearly something thrown together by engineers who knew nothing about the tools they were working with. Not their fault (probably), some douche bag manager probably didn't ask the IT guys.

        The problem is, they went through effort and resources to make a system that is clearly less efficient than any of the possibly alternatives I can come up with.

    • by elrous0 (869638) *
      I'm just surprised that they have to do this at all. They're in LEO, not on Mars. Shouldn't they be able to manage communications at least as well as even the simplest communications satellite (which can do a LOT more bandwidth that little 4MB bursts)?
      • by gknoy (899301)

        It's not a matter of signals being impossible. Rather, adding additional communications infrastructure to an existing space installation requires power, mass, and a rocket to take it up there. If they can use their existing (poor) connection speed, they can avoid all of that.

  • In space, no one can hear you scream at Microsoft Outlook...
  • by Rix (54095) on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:14PM (#30755408)

    Why not just run a normal mailserver with a simple script to deliver any messages in the files uploaded? No need for the astronauts to mess with weird outlook files, just hit "check mail" on whatever client they prefer.

  • Wow (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:15PM (#30755426)

    For all those years i wanted to shoot outlook into outer space, and they already did...

  • ...not quite realtime or important?

    Yeah, I wonder what kind of IM they are using, if any (I know there were some sessions with Packet Radio and its "IM" functionality, though I'm not sure if that counts)

    PS. Thinkpads aren't ordinary laptops! ;)

    • by gblackwo (1087063)
      CB radio?
  • Not simply webmail? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Drethon (1445051)
    Is it actually cheaper to upload all the e-mails in a burst instead of using a webmail system where only the mail the receiver wants to receive would be opened? Wouldn't work if they want to read offline I guess but the concern mentioned is bandwidth not connectivity.

    Any mail experts comment?
    • by Korbeau (913903)

      Is it actually cheaper to upload all the e-mails in a burst instead of using a webmail system where only the mail the receiver wants to receive would be opened? Wouldn't work if they want to read offline I guess but the concern mentioned is bandwidth not connectivity.

      Any mail experts comment?

      If you read the article you notice that mails sent there are pre-filtered so everything is critical to read and contains no spam.

      So yes, uploading all mails neatly packaged together ONCE takes way less bandwidth than a webmail interface, even if it's a very lightweight one (think about it, Hotmail or Gmail probably transfers the same amount of data than 20 or more email messages just to display their fancy interface).

    • by MobyDisk (75490)

      The web interface would waste more bandwidth than it saves.

  • Yikes! (Score:5, Funny)

    by serutan (259622) <snoopdoug AT geekazon DOT com> on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:20PM (#30755482) Homepage

    Just knowing Windows is running in space kind of gives me the willies.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by mlush (620447)

      Just knowing Windows is running in space kind of gives me the willies.

      Would you open Windows on the ISS???

    • In fact, you should be surprised that Windows is _STILL_ running after a Virus has hit the ISS orbiting the planet.

      No kidding, Google it.

      It is particularly sad that NASA IT guys aren't obviously that pathetic to license Outlook from MS. Something really going on there, a lot of open source software/operating systems has NASA contributed excellent code in them.

      PS: I remember they also had Norton Utilities with "rescue diskettes" back in 1990s, it leaked while I was trying to find a way to manually uninstall

    • by lewp (95638)

      Really? I would think that's the safest place for it.

    • Just knowing Windows is running in space kind of gives me the willies.

      No joke. This seriously hampers any efforts to nuke it from orbit.

  • Architecture? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by smitty777 (1612557) on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:20PM (#30755488) Journal

    It's too bad the article didn't address the architecture behind all this. I would be curious to hear what kind of network they use, and what sort of relays (satellite?). If it is satellites, why is the bandwidth so low? (Hmmm... maybe they really should have made that ethernet cable just a little longer after all...)

  • by GodfatherofSoul (174979) on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:23PM (#30755538)
    I am a Martian prince from the Splugorthian region of the Xylerom. I have inherited a bountiful estate worth 1.8345E8 drow'xlian that I must hide from the ruthless Prxyzzilic crime family. I am willing to share 20% of my fortune with you will allow me to deposit fund in your account. Please send me your account information if you wish to do business. Live long and prosper! Prince Ryzzriwz
    • by Whalou (721698) on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:39PM (#30755784)

      I am a Martian prince from the Splugorthian region of the Xylerom. I have inherited a bountiful estate worth 1.8345E8 drow'xlian that I must hide from the ruthless Prxyzzilic crime family. I am willing to share 20% of my fortune with you will allow me to deposit fund in your account. Please send me your account information if you wish to do business. Live long and prosper! Prince Ryzzriwz

      It's a trick! He's Vulcan.

  • UUCP? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by shutton (4725) * on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:26PM (#30755590) Homepage
    UUCP worked quite nicely in the days when links were ephemeral, slow, or generally unreliable. This seems like a lot of effort to solve a problem that existed 30 years ago, solved, and even adapted for RFC821 and its successors. There's a reason that Sendmail knows how to rewrite addresses!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:28PM (#30755618)

    ...to use Microsoft software.

    Because there’s limited bandwidth up to the shuttle it’s important to keep the OST fairly small so occasionally you’ll hear NASA controllers ask the crew to clean out their Outlook files

    They ask them, over a realtime voice connection, to clean out their Outlook files to save bandwidth. That's like sending "You've got mail" as a WAV file after transmitting a 1kB mail file.

  • by Wannabe Code Monkey (638617) on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:32PM (#30755690)

    So, once a day they bundle a bunch of emails into a single .OST file and upload it to the shuttle. The astronauts then open that .OST file in their local copy of Outlook. And they have to shut down Outlook while the upload is in progress because of Outlook file locking.

    In addition, communication with the ground isn't always possible (you'll hear warnings of LOS - Loss of Signal during mission communications) so standard methods of email transfer like POP/SMTP, IMAP etc might not be reliable.

    If a 'Loss of Signal' can interrupt a POP session, wouldn't it also interrupt a file upload? Couldn't they just POP into the server on Earth once a day to grab their emails to be stored in a simple mbox or some such? Wouldn't this also eliminate the file locking issue as mboxes and Maildirs are pretty old and stable solutions that don't have this problem? This just sounds like someone wanted to use Microsoft Outlook no matter what and hacked together a procedure to use it even though there are way better approaches. And isn't the whole point of Outlook that it has a built in calendar and meeting request system and network folders? They're not even using those more advanced parts of it, they just need email.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Hey they are rocket scientist, not IT techs.

      What do you pretend next, that they know how to build a rocket?

      Oh, wait ....

    • I gather that the idea is that the OST stores the messages more efficiently than if you were trying to transfer individual messages. That's an important issue if you're operating with limited bandwidth. Also, the article implies that the messages are basically being hand-sorted into the OST file to prevent any waste in bandwidth.

      Beyond that, there's the issue of what protocols are best for this purpose. The article doesn't go into detail about how the OST files are being uploaded, but the protocol may

    • If they have minimal bandwidth, then pop probably isn't ideal because of the back and forth communication. Also, I would suspect that to minimize transfer time, their file transfer mechanism uses compression (email is HIGHLY compressible). As far as I know, there's no way to do pop compression (though if the compression were implemented at the connection/tunneling level, then I suppose that would be transparent)

      As for your other question, there are resumable file upload/download methods.

    • by tool462 (677306)

      If a 'Loss of Signal' can interrupt a POP session, wouldn't it also interrupt a file upload?

      If they could get a few more shuttles into orbit, they could probably use BitTorrent.

  • Time Zone? (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:34PM (#30755722)

    Do they have something to automatically change that every 30 seconds?

  • 'The crew use fairly standard laptops running Microsoft Outlook (currently Outlook 2003) with Exchange Server as the email host...Because there's limited bandwidth up to the shuttle it's important to keep the OST fairly small so occasionally you'll hear NASA controllers ask the crew to clean out their Outlook files'

    I say we take off and re-install the entire OS from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

  • by Ilgaz (86384) on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:40PM (#30755800) Homepage

    As there is a new President in the Office and he doesn't really like (it seems) fantasy and unrealistic plans, he should also order his IT guys to start an investigation why standard, documented protocols like IMAP, XMPP aren't used. A visit from a Internet2 academic could be enough...

    In fact, it is an International issue. ISS doesn't "belong" to USA, there are several billions of dollars of other countries out there.

    While on it, they should also ask NASA about why on Earth "NASA TV is best viewed fullscreen with Windows Media Player", why there isn't a standard MP4 based live broadcast, why it defaults to Windows Media regardless of your setup...

    Something really happening over there, trust me on that... These are the guys who had a genius idea of using Kermit as a protocol for communication before these "Outlook", "Windows Media Player" guys took over the job.

    If there are people thinking "Oh but MS is an American company", let me remind, Red Hat, Sun Micro, IBM and lots of standards bodies are American too... That is in case the multi hundred billion dollar project should be a billboard for pathetic software setups.

    • by MightyMartian (840721) on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @05:02PM (#30756154) Journal

      You don't need anything fancy. I was using UUCP to do bulk and batched transfers of email, Usenet feeds and even files back in the early 1990s. It's become obsolete in a lot of cases, because everyone went from low-bandwidth limited connection modems to always-on broadband connections, but back in the day, I got all my email, newsfeed and even the odd file a few times a day via a scheduled UUCP transfers (which also sent any emails and posts I might have). Ah, the good ol' days of bang paths! Still, UUCP has its purposes, and it strikes me that it is a well-established protocol designed just for this sort of environment.

      It just goes to show you how much damage has been done to tech by Microsoft, and this pervasive psychological need to use its shitty software, its shitty file formats and its shitty protocols, even with an organization populated by people who should be intimately familiar with Unix and its own much more rigorous and time-tested protocols. I mean, this is nothing more than FTPing mbox files back and forth, which, twenty years ago, would have had anybody with a moderate knowledge of mail systems and communications protocols rolling on the floor laughing.

  • by StandardDeviant (122674) on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:44PM (#30755882) Homepage Journal

    If only that headline used "Nuking" instead of "Using" Outlook from Orbit.

    My company recently switched from a really screwball lotus notes install to msexchange and thereby screwed every unix and mac user -- which is to say, 95% of the technical staff. Some of that I can't blame MSFT for, we do have some real chimpanzees on our email team, but the experience does have me shaking my fist in Redmond's direction even more than usual of late.

  • by phonewebcam (446772) on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:45PM (#30755896) Homepage

    I noticed you pushed a button on your console. Are you trying to steer your spacecraft? Please wait whilst Clippy ShuttleBuddy extensions for .NET 3.0 SP6 is installed, then after a reboot we'll get right on with that.

  • "...but they don't link to the server using any of the standard methods."

    I bet they link to the server using WIFI...

  • by BitZtream (692029) on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @04:53PM (#30756006)

    I was doing this 20 years ago with UUCP and/or sendmail.

    HELO mx1.ground.nasa.gov
    EXTN
    QUIT

    Push queued mail on demand to the orbiting mail server. Cron up the EXTN trigger or setup sendmail (which its happy to do) to handle the queuing whever you want.

    Guess what, it works with exchange too!

    I guess NASA spends its money on aeronautical engineers and not computer system admins. I'd be willing to bet that I could do it cheaper and more reliably even with exchange than there method, in their constraints of bandwidth and available connection time.

    Seriously, I ran a FIDOnet hub, its not hard. :)

    • by jgrahn (181062)

      I guess NASA spends its money on aeronautical engineers and not computer system admins.

      Wasn't that what Larry Wall was doing at the JPL when he invented Perl?

  • In other words, it's a really shitty reimplementation of UUCP mail transiting.

  • This hurt to read. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by zippthorne (748122) on Wednesday January 13, 2010 @05:24PM (#30756462) Journal

    These OST files are tiny by ground-based standards – around at most 4MB for shuttle crew.

    Amazing. A just over a half-dozen people and yet they manage to keep their email communications down to just 2,000 pages of text a day! How do they manage.

    The OST file, now with outgoing emails, is copied back to NASA on the ground where the messages are sent, copied to the Sent Items folder and any new email is placed in the OST ready for the next upload.

    Well, that makes sense. They reply with the same type of file that they receive with. If it's good for bandwidth one way, it's good for bandwidth the other I'd guess.

    Because there’s limited bandwidth up to the shuttle it’s important to keep the OST fairly small so occasionally you’ll hear NASA controllers ask the crew to clean out their Outlook files (the OST).

    Whajah? They're sending the *entire* mailbox both ways and just bouncing the same messages back and forth every time? How does that save bandwidth? How do these guys send pictures to each other, zip up an image of the entire hard drive?

    I guess that explains why they need to transfer 2,000+ pages of text every day.

    This sounds cumbersome and messy

    True. Because it is cumbersome and messy.

    it’s certainly not the way you’d do it here on the Green Hills of Earth.

    It's also not the way I'd do it in space either, because of the bandwidth constraints.

    However it makes sense

    No it doesn't. Not under any circumstance does "send the whole thing back and forth every time" make sense if the thing you're trying to conserve is bandwidth.

    You might also hear ‘CapCom’ asking the crew to shut down their copies of Outlook so that an OST transfer can occur. Outlook puts a file lock on any PST/OST file which prevents any copying (a problem anyone trying to do an Outlook backup might be familiar with).

    Ahh, so that's it. They're not trying to conserve bandwidth. They're trying to conserve "thinking about it." Otherwise, they'd only have to shut down outlook when renaming "file.ost.xfer" to "c:\...\outlookdir\file.ost"

    In addition, communication with the ground isn’t always possible (you’ll hear warnings of LOS – Loss of Signal during mission communications) so standard methods of email transfer like POP/SMTP, IMAP etc might not be reliable.

    True. Why does it need to be email, though. Why can't they just send a psk-31 HF radiogram? or the even more fault tolerant HF packet radio? You only need a transmit station somewhere in the same hemisphere for that to work.

    Hell, with a directional antenna (and a doppler-compensating transmitter), there's no reason why they couldn't use 3G cell service when over a country which has it. 300 miles up gets you a window of up to 11 minutes which would let you download quite a bit.

    But I don't think bandwidth is really the issue. There's enough bandwidth to transmit live video for pete's sake, but email is somehow a problem? The issue is that "outlook is email." It clearly has simply never occurred to anyone in the chain that there might even be any other way to handle email-type communications.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by LWATCDR (28044)

      "Why can't they just send a psk-31 HF radiogram? or the even more fault tolerant HF packet radio?"
      The Ionosphere maybe. It will tend to block HF and one of the reasons HF is so good for long range on earth is that it can bounch and skip off the Ionosphere.
      At best you would still just get line of site and the antenna would have to be very large.
      You would be better off using VHF,UHF, or even Microwave since you could get more bandwidth.

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