Monitors let NASA Ames know when there's trouble in the air

The modular NetBotz 500, with detachable camera and sensor pods, sells for about $2,500.

NASA Ames Research Center

George Alger supports 4,500 users at NASA Ames Research Center, and they're all 'on one big network,' he said.

As IT services manager, Alger is responsible for keeping telephones, videoconferencing, Internet, NASA TV, e-mail, business systems and databases up and running all the time. So he needs plenty of battery backup to buffer brownouts and outages at the 90-building site at Moffett Field, Calif.

Some buildings also have subnets with one or more servers for internal use, plus advanced visualization and supercomputing systems. And Alger must keep the center's electric motors and other cycling systems isolated from the computers, which can suffer damage from power variations.

'The fire marshal worried about the hydrogen gas' given off by the 160 large storage batteries in Alger's uninterruptible power system, he said. 'We have high uptime, but we've seen some interruptions' in the electricity supplied by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Inside the battery rooms, he has installed monitoring devices from NetBotz Corp. of Austin, Texas, with special hydrogen sensors to raise an alarm whenever the concentration rises above the 1 percent level.

At 2 percent hydrogen, Alger said, 'you must do something' because room air concentrations that climb any higher become combustible. 'Hydrogen burns invisibly,' he said. 'You can't see the fire, only the heat waves.'

Alger started out with 10 NetBotz devices for the dedicated battery rooms and telephone equipment backup. Although their primary job at Ames is monitoring hydrogen, temperature and humidity, the devices have black-and-white or color cameras for watching server rooms from a central console.

They monitor and send alarms about noise as well, Alger said. For example, if room sound rises above a preset level, the devices can alert the staff to an unheeded server alarm, equipment malfunction or break-in.

The NetBotz devices are called WallBotz if wall-mounted or RackBotz if rack-mounted.

AC problem caught

'The WallBotz cameras come in handy because they're always taking a picture but not necessarily serving it up,' Alger said. 'When we were updating the air conditioning equipment, contractors were coming in and sometimes got lost. We could watch them with the cameras and make sure they didn't go into the wrong places.'

The WallBotz devices also warned Alger about something he had not expected: The new air conditioning equipment was failing to cool server rooms to between 68 degrees and 70 degrees Fahrenheit as required by contract.

'Battery efficiency changes with temperature,' Alger said. 'If it gets too cold or too hot, the UPS batteries might not put out enough energy' long enough for orderly shutdowns of the computer equipment they back up.

Installing the NetBotz monitors was relatively easy. 'You just hook them up to a wall mount, power and Ethernet,' he said. 'The basic model cost us about $1,000 each.'

Mitchell Medford, NetBotz vice president of product development, said government customers have driven the design requirements. 'They asked us for the horsepower to do Secure Sockets Layer encryption,' he said. 'They also asked for better cameras for surveillance.'

Those requests became part of the new $2,500 NetBotz 500, which incorporates one modular camera pod and one sensor pod. The basic unit has serial, Ethernet, PC Card and four Universal Serial Bus ports for connecting up to four cameras and up to 16 extra sensor ports.

Extra cameras cost about $500 each, extra pods about $250 each on the General Services Administration's IT Schedule, Medford said.

The cameras accept special-purpose commercial lenses, such as wide-angle or autofocus lenses. When detached from the NetBotz, the cameras can be moved on their USB cables to different locations for a full room view.

'Customers wanted wireless access in unnetworked areas,' Medford said, 'so we put in a PC Card slot for IEEE 802.11a, b and g wireless network cards.'

Because routers and switches are heat-sensitive, temperature monitoring is still the top use for NetBotz, however. Medford said hardware makers 'are paying a lot more attention to operating temperature.'

The mean time between failures can drop by half if ambient temperature gets 10 degrees to 15 degrees Celsius higher than a switch or router maker's recommended level.

'It's cheaper to cool a server room to 70 degrees than to pay $100,000 to replace equipment,' Medford said.

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