Category Archives: SmartLink

Thoughts on Remote Station dependencies in Emergency Use

Whether Emcomm, Freecomm, or just for personal use, can a radio amateur depend on a remote station when the “chips are down?”

There are some compelling reasons that a remote station would be a useful tool in an emergency.  Whether it is to access a station unaffected by a localized emergency event, whether it is to gain a high performance remote station’s capabilities while being relatively mobile, through concepts like minimizing personal risk through DF (direction finding) & retaliation in a confrontational emergency – there are dozens of rationales making access to a remote station a consideration. Personally I find the idea a single operator might be able to access any one of several remote stations compelling.

By definition remoting a station requires the operator to establish a link from their location to the remote station.  While there are several types of connections available the contemporary remote station depends largely on internet connectivity to create the “bridge” between the operator and the remote station.

I’d like to talk about this ‘internet bridge’ in general reliability terms.

Robustness, Reliability and Latency are the keywords to define what works best.  Most Robust, Most Reliable and Lowest Stable Latency are the goals we need for an effective remote operation.

All current solutions depend on our operator to remote station bridge traversing multiple internet connections.

Often the most Robust, Reliable and Lowest Latency is technically complex and involved.

Largely solutions fall into a couple classes:

  • Direct Login – where the operator directly does a login to the remote station.  These are fairly simple, but often have data throughput issues and often require dedicated hardware at both ends.  The setups may be technically more challenging than any challenge in actual use.  (Geeky to configure, but easier to run later.)

 

  • VPN Tunnel – where an internet tunnel is created between the operator and the remote station.  These are more complex to setup, often requiring special software/hardware, but largely are workable.  A lot of folk find this solution more Geeky than they are ready to undertake.

 

  • Brokered Connections – basically allows the ease of an Direct Login brokering behind the scenes the advantages of a VPN Tunnel.  Basically the operator (and radios at the remote station) end up all connected to a server service that then gets the operator and remote station pushed off to their own VPN.  When they want to renegotiate a new connection the server service is called back in to handle those new negotiations.  Actual traffic doesn’t pass through the server service (that would be wasteful and add too much latency) but the service provides some levels of overwatch.  FlexRadio’s SmartLink is the widest known amateur radio Broker Connection product.

Some solutions require the remote station to have a computer interfacing towards the wider internet, others allow station components to interface directly to the internet.

The remote station interface computer can range from a separate PC class machine to a dedicated processor integral in perhaps a router (thinking VPN here folks) or even a board-type computer like a dedicated Raspberry-Pi acting as the interface.

If you visualize this remote station to operator ‘bridge’ from end to end, many components are single, dedicated, unique to that ‘bridge.’  These are often called “single points of failure,” meaning that if they fail the entire system will fail.  You can do a lot of research on “single points of failure” and suggest searching on it (you might want to use the “SPOF” shorthand and “single point of failure mitigation” to get a start on analysis/solutions.)

There is another consideration concerning the Robustness of parts of the ‘bridge.’  While we try to build our remote station ‘bridge’ using the most robust components we normally frame the expected reliability under the concept that whole system is only as good as it’s weakest link.

Actually the whole system – that ‘bridge’ – isn’t even as good as the weakest link.  Reliability Engineers multiply each uptime percentage with all the other SPOF reliability factors to get an overall system reliability prediction (see Lusser’s Law.)  This means we shouldn’t consider a ‘bridge’ 95% reliable that crosses say seven different 95% reliable SPOFs, rather we should consider that ‘bridge’ only roughly 70% reliable (the product of the seven 95% rounded off).

Actually this sort of math is fairly tedious and may only offer a reliability indicator in the end for our purposes, as we seldom have actual measured individual reliability factors.  One certainly wouldn’t want to build a reliability prediction based on marketing claims – that is why we intuitively put more stock into the real world experiences we can get information on.

A lot of Emcomm/Freecom station address the know SPOFs that face an emergency station – redundant gear, radios, power, manual paperwork/procedures to replace the automated ones, repair supplies & tools, and maybe even a cached complete redundant station in a different location in case the main station was damaged.

Things quickly get complicated when we remote though.  It is a lot harder to say swap in a good antenna switch when lightening damaged our usual switch when we are operating remote.  Like it isn’t likely to happen without feet on the ground at the station itself.

Then can we depend on traversing the WWW Internet to complete our ‘bridge?’

The impetuous to write this article has been a rare outage in Microsoft’s Azure, the backend product behind FlexRadio’s SmartLink.  SmartLink became unusable for part of day when lightening created a power surge that damaged the cooling in a major Microsoft Azure datacenter.  The loss of cooling led to the servers protecting themselves and going offline.  While established SmartLink ‘bridges’ appeared unaffected, there was a loss in SmartLink’s brokering new connections.  Establishing new remote connections via SmartLink wasn’t possible.

That brief outage led to a lot of thinking about whether a remote station is a good Emcomm/Freecom solution?

In my case I do keep a SoftEther VPN backup in the ready.

That is a Parallel alternative to the brokered SmartLink connection.

Parallel systems improve overall reliability with every completely separate parallel system available.

Mathematically say we have three 95% options we can calculate the overall reliability using the formula

Overall Reliability = 1-(first system’s failure rate x next system’s failure rate….)

That would give us in our example

Overall Reliability = 1-(5% x 5% x 5%) which equals 99.9875% calculated Overall Reliability

(If you think you’d like to get into more on this subject, including guidelines on how to calculate combined series/parallel system reliabilities I can suggest http://reliawiki.org/index.php/RBDs_and_Analytical_System_Reliability for a starting point.)

The math should guide us – if we have truly parallel redundancy we minimize the SPOFs we can control.

The remaining wildcard is how reliable we can consider the WWW Internet in an Emcomm/Freecom situation?

Whether the internet is interrupted by the emergency event or is disrupted separately, can we depend it to allow our proposed Emcomm/Freecom remote operations?

Recently in the amateur radio news the MARS folks have announced they want their people to both have the capabilities to operate and drill without internet connectivity.  As a great many MARS stations use a computer, they have asked that this computer be ‘air gapped’ – meaning physically disconnected from the internet.

I’m thinking it would be best practice that any Emcomm/Freecom remote station also have a parallel system to ‘bridge’ between operator and the remote station that is also fully ‘air gapped.’

Otherwise my take is we are just fooling ourselves as the greatest part of the ‘bridge’ is across systems & hardware we neither control or can access.  In most cases we may note be able to even figure out exactly what the ‘bridge’ topography actually is.

If that ‘bridge’ topography is altered to bypass damaged components (or for other reasons) it may pick up an unacceptable latency compromising our ability to operate remote.

In a future post I’ll cover ideas on possibilities for an “air gapped bridge.”

73

Steve
K9ZW

Advertisements

Remoting via SmartSDR and SmartLink v2.0 – in Daily Use

 

Travels so often put a person in a hotel somewhere with idle time to fill.  My last appointment of the day in Milwaukee finished at 5:30pm and after taking my youngest two university students out for dinner, Winston KC9FVR and Vic KC9NWB, I’d decided to stay in town.  A morning appointment at 7 am made running home and then hitting the road by 5 am seem a waste.

A Speedtest showed that this Art Deco hotel, The Ambassador, has a guest internet that can support remoting my Flex-6700, so it was a no-brainer to run QSOs from the hotel room.

K9ZW portable SmartSDR setup

My setup is super simple   An older 2013 era iPad Air with and even older AblePlanet noise-canceling headset with a boom microphone adapter.

I think the AblePlanet setup is almost ten years old and had made many overseas flights over the years.  I’d bought the boom microphone  to do some of the earlier voip programs.  I’d bought five of the headsets so everyone had one for a U.K. Trip, but I was the only one with a microphone as the option was a silly price back then.

Some folk didn’t like the headsets or found then fragile, and when they were being sold off cheap I should have bought more.

On the iPad I’m using “SmartSDR for iOS” which is truly an elegant implementation.

Logging is handled with the in-App purchase Logger add-in for SmartSDR for iOS.  Simple but elegant.

Now I have to admit I played radio only for an hour or so, but it sure was a blast.

I’ll talk more about putting this all together in a further installment.

73

Steve
K9ZW

Remoting via SmartSDR and SmartLink v2.0 – Both my Stations are UP!!

One of my “Dreams” I contemplated when the Flex-6000 (Deep Impact, right?) was announced was the idea that I could control more than one of my own stations remotely.

I forgot to shoot a screen shot, as I was able to sit in the W9EVT Mega-Shack receiving the stations I worked, while alternatingly working them from my North and South Stations!

When I got back to the North Station I did shoot this screen shot the next morning:

SmartLink doing both of my Stations

Let’s walk through the four entries:

  1. K9ZW Home (South) QTH via SmartLink – this is in Manitowoc, Wisconsin running a Flex-6700 Limited Edition (#11) barefoot to a Tennadyne T-8 at 60ft.
  2. K9ZW Island (North) QTH via SmartLink – this is on Washington Island, Wisconsin (hence the WI-001L) running a later Flex-6700 barefoot to a SteppIR CrankIR portable antenna.
  3. K9ZW Island (North) QTH via Local Area Network is the same station and shows because I within the wireless router’s coverage.
  4. Demo Flex-6700 is built into SmartSDR for iOS, and I keep it enabled to do quick show-and-tell sessions where I don’t have good internet set up.

So what I was doing was using George W9EVT’s Maestro and Flex-6300 to listen as I switch back-and forth from the North and South stations.  I was also monitoring via those stations as well.

The North and South stations are roughly 190 km/118 miles apart in a largely north(NNE)-south(SSW) displacement.  The roads are slow and a ferry ride make this a 3+ hour trip each way.

K9ZW South to K9ZW North – 24 degrees

Very interesting experiment which I hope to repeat!

Next step may come in the future, as I would love to combine the two stations in one virtual-station!

73

Steve
K9ZW

Remoting via SmartSDR and SmartLink v2.0 – First Impressions

Working DX stations on my iPhone with SmartSDR for iOS from the local airport cafe….
Monitoring the band via SmartLink using a Maestro from my work desk….
Working DX from the doctor’s waiting room via SmartSDR for iOS on that iPhone (I went the cellphone area to keep the quiet)….
Then working lots of Parks on the Air and iota stations from SmartSDR for iOS on an iPad but locally (LAN connection) while doing bills….

What an awesome product! Okay there are some things the initial v2.0 isn’t ready to do yet: No native digital (DAX digital streams are perhaps down the road), No remote control of other station equipment, No built-in standby/start control, the 4o3a gear integration didn’t make this release. Stuff that can come later.

What is awesome is that lickty split one can remote into their setup Flex-6000 station without a PhD in networking!

Nothing on the net is truely always plug-and-play so you might need some help getting through the initial setup. And of course you need enough low latency, low jitter and modestly bufferless limited (like satellite internet doesn’t seem to work) to make the connection. Would seem as a good rule of thumb if your connection will support a good grade of gamer’s connection with voice and all that, you may be in the right direction.

Setup is a ready the manual and follow the steps sort of thing. Makes sense.

Good stuff!

73

Steve
K9ZW

FlexRadio Systems SmartLink and SmartSDR v2.0

Well I have half of my gear moved to the newest FlexRadio Systems SmartLink and SmartSDR version 2.0

From the main hamshack my earlier Flex-6700 (a Limited Edition model, number #11) updated very quickly.   I had some trouble with the AT&T UVerse modem/router getting the Port Forwarding sorted out, as most UVerse modems don’t do UPnP that SmartLink needs.

Putting SmartSDR for Windows v2.0 on my main shack computer was a breeze.  Don’t forget to then update your DDUtil to the latest.

Updating the iPhone and iPad to SmartSDR for iOS version 2.0 was simple.  You have to remember to “restore” any in-app purchases (I use the DX Cluster, the Log Book and the band plans) before they will operate.

I was a bit stuck upgrading the first Maestro in isolation.  Once I realized it had to be connected to v2.0 radio I whipped out the Raspberry Pi VPN to make that initial connection.  Pretty neat to have control of my Flex-6700 from work!

The blue rectangle says “SmartLink” confirming WAN connection to the radio.

This coming weekend I hope to upgrade my second Flex-6700 and second Maestro on Washington Island, though I am a bit far off from keeping that station live 24/7 yet. My internet on the island is just adequate to run SmartLink, though I may need to do some tweaking control bandwidth.

Kudos to FlexRadio Systems for making this HUGE upgrade so simple and easy.

73

Steve
K9ZW

SmartSDR v2.0.xx and SmartLink around the corner

By the time you might read this, the long awaited SmartSDR v2 and the new SmartLink may have hit the street.

 

SmartLink first screen

The whole idea on SmartLink is to make most internet connections between a Flex-6000 radio-server and the remote user (PC, iPad/iPhone, Mac, or Maestro) as user friendly as possible.

And as for SmartSDR v2.0 the remote feature figures large, but is only one of a raft of new features including performance improvements for the Flex-6300 and Flex-6700 radio-servers to new GUI features including pop-out SmartSDR windows and a raft of other improvements.

SmartSDR for iOS and the SmartSDR for Maestro also pick up the main improvements as well as platform specific features.

Somehow I don’t think we will make it through the week without a launch.

73

Steve

K9ZW

Advertisements