The perfSONAR website says it well: “Networks are vital to research.” On a typical day, a perfSONAR (“Performance focused Service Oriented Network monitoring ARchitecture”) box sits in a wiring closet or data center next to a router, just waiting for the chance to run a test between two network points to see if there’s a glitch. Its job is important, but the scenery doesn’t change. Recently, though, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offered it the chance to see the world aboard its ships.

The idea behind perfSONAR is to provide test points on a network that operators can run from a third-party location. With permission from the network, an operator can run a test between two perfSONAR locations anywhere in the world. For example, if someone is having a data transfer problem between Seattle and Tokyo, an operator can initiate a test from their desktop between those two hosts. Making the network better makes the research better.

But what if one of the endpoints is out at sea? NOAA operates a wide assortment of hydrographic survey, oceanographic research and fisheries survey vessels that serve critical scientific needs. NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations operates sixteen ships in all. And short of slow satellite hookups, they have a difficult time getting valuable research data back to NOAA’s national data centers.

How perfSONAR and GlobalNOC can help

There’s a lot of data involved and most of that data is stored on the ship. The ships pull into shore and plug into whatever internet connection they have at the pier they’re at and offload that data to a server. Sometimes that connection is so poor that they will literally drive it elsewhere. They make redundant copies of the data in case something happens while it’s in transit.

“Our role was to assist in making a recommendation for a small form factor perfSONAR box because we’ve got a lot of experience in that area,” said Luke Fowler, director of Software and Systems at GlobalNOC. “Once we made the recommendation, our N-Wave NOC partner engineers in Silver Spring, Maryland, configured the boxes and sent them out.”

“We’re trying to do a couple of things here,” added Fowler. “We want to get better networking out to the piers. So that when they do plug in, they can get a very fast connection back to the N-Wavecore (NOAA’s high-performance network) so they can push that data out to their national data centers. While at sea, they have those satellite connections, too.”

When they’re out at sea, a technician can’t go help them, so NOAA is limited, in terms of tech support, to whatever personnel is on the boat. And troubleshooting a connection there is kind of a challenge.

“With this project, we were attempting to assist with connectivity,” said Fowler. “When that connectivity is poor, it’s difficult to tell where the issue is. We decided to do these small form-factor perfSONAR installations. These are small, appliance-like boxes we can send out to the ships. They can plug them into their network so that when they’re at sea, we get the data. There were two on the boat, and one at the satellite landing facility on the West Coast, and then there’s one in the Silver Spring NOC, so that we can run periodic tests and see where the data is failing.”

Making the network operate well, on an end-to-end basis, is critical to modern, data-driven scientific research. perfSONAR is one of those tools in the arsenal of GlobalNOC that helps ensure that the data gets to where it is most needed so that the science has the impact where it is most needed. And oftentimes, that impact is time-sensitive. The faster the data, the greater the impact.

“It’s a unique application of perfSONAR,” said Fowler. “Generally, these things are kind of static. But we’re talking about something that’s going out and measuring satellite links on ships that are dynamic. No one’s done anything like that before. Another thing we’d like to do that we’re not doing yet is proactive monitoring. We’d like to be able to ping the boxes while they are out at sea and test data transfer speeds. If it’s substandard, we can proactively raise an issue with the satellite provider. We’re still early in the proof-of-concept stage, so we hope to learn a lot that will speed up scientific discovery and research.”