British Antarctic Survey

Tape storage protects research on Antarctic science ship

British Antarctic Survey outfitted the RRS Sir David Attenborough with Quantum QXS hybrid disk and Scalar i3 tape libraries to store and protect research data mid-voyage.

British Antarctic Survey takes cold storage literally.

Part of the U.K.'s National Environment Research Council, British Antarctic Survey (BAS) performs scientific research at Earth's poles. In addition to research on behalf of the U.K., BAS collaborates with universities and other research organizations to study atmospheric and space science, geology and biology in the Arctic and Antarctic. To accomplish its mission, BAS has five research stations in the Antarctic region, five aircraft and a new ice-breaking research vessel: the RRS Sir David Attenborough.

The Attenborough measures 423 feet with room for 30 crew and 60 scientists. It was custom-built for BAS and equipped with modern data-gathering technology such as high-definition cameras, powerful echosounders that can reach about 12 kilometers underwater, a small workboat with its own echosounder and autonomous helicopter and submarine drones. The Attenborough's primary objective is to provide logistics for the Antarctic research stations.

The Attenborough is still preparing for its maiden voyage, set for November 2021. BAS IT support engineer Jeremy Robst said he has been testing and running the storage and backup systems in the BAS office since 2019 and began installing them on the Attenborough in September 2020. COVID-19 delayed some of the installation efforts, but the ship has been making trial runs around the U.K. and Arctic.

Storing and protecting research data is crucial to BAS. Robst described some of the challenges of building a data center in a harsh environment. He said, "Far and away, network connectivity is the largest thing we contend with," because it makes cloud storage unfeasible.

Therefore, the Attenborough uses two Quantum QXS hybrid disk devices to provide 400 TB of primary storage and two Quantum Scalar i3 tape libraries for backup storage. The ship's team uses Veeam software to perform nightly backups of the research data from the primary disk drives to one tape library. Data on the other tape library is in LTFS format for easy data export. Non-research data from primary is backed up on a Synology NAS device.

photo of the RRS Sir David Attenborough
The RRS Sir David Attenborough at Liverpool Cruise Terminal

Robst said tape storage makes the most sense for the Attenborough's operations because of its low cost and space requirement. He expects each research cruise, which can last six to eight weeks, to generate about 100 TB of research data, and he wants to keep research data from the previous one or two research voyages. Tape storage lets him reach high data density with LTO-8, which can hold 12 TB of data per cartridge or 30 TB compressed.

Robst said the other advantage of tape storage is easy transport. Since LTFS can be read by all major operating systems, the tape cartridges can be flown back to the U.K. office in suitcases when the Attenborough docks at a port. That saves the ship from having to travel back to England to deliver the data.

Another major concern is the sheer amount of movement on a boat, which can come from large ocean waves and the vibrations caused when the Attenborough rams through ice. The data center's server racks are coated in vibration dampeners, and monitors are drilled directly onto the wood on the ship to hold them down. Robst said tape storage helps in this regard because the smaller the footprint and more contained a system is, the easier it is to bolt down.

Although one of the main advantages of tape storage is that it doesn't require power when not in use, Robst said that isn't an issue on board the Attenborough, as the ship generates its own power. Salt and dampness from the sea don't harm the devices because the server room is deep within the bowels of the ship, well-insulated from the harsh Antarctic environment. However, this means temperature can pose a problem, as the server room can overheat. Robst said having to turn on air conditioning on an Antarctic research vessel is one of the biggest ironies of running a data center at sea.

"Imagine: You're in the Antarctic, and you're afraid of overheating," Robst said.

Robst had a similar setup on the two ships BAS previously employed: the RRS Ernest Shackleton and the RRS James Clark Ross. Those systems had a server with internal disk storage running VMware ESX connected to a tape robot. Robst described the Attenborough's setup as an evolution of the technology used on the previous vessels, taking the same basic idea of using disk for primary storage and tape for backup and condensing them onto one server. BAS is similarly condensing down to a single-ship operation with the Attenborough. The Shackleton was returned to its original owner, GC Rieber Shipping, in April 2019. The James Clark Ross will be put up for sale.

According to Robst, the Attenborough's maiden voyage will serve as a "rehearsal cruise" for the scientists to learn how to use all the ship's research tools -- and a way to put Robst's storage system to the test.

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