Plugged In: ‘Network in a box’ offers connectivity across the globe

Effective mobile computing and Internet access are now fundamental to improving education and knowledge of the world for everyone. In less-fortunate areas of the globe, especially areas without reliable AC electrical power, battery-powered computer access can be deeply transformative.

Closer to home, setting up a highly portable, battery-operated home network, storing all of your family’s photos, video, other media and family files, can be a real pleasure. It’s now easy, using inexpensive technologies that we’ll discuss this week, and one of the best ways to protect family memories in the event of a threatening situation, such as a fire.

Why even bother with any form of home or small school network in the smartphone era? Smartphones are useful, and the dominantly popular form of highly mobile computing in the U.S. However, they have significant cost and operational limitations compared to even the most basic, inexpensive notebook computers, particularly in educational environments and where large amounts of video and other data need to be stored and used by several people simultaneously.

These limitations, and the solution to them, became apparent when I and several other Soldotna Rotary members were recently asked to design and build a small, highly portable computer network for a desperately poor school in Masaya, Nicaragua. The school does not have electrical power in its classrooms and has no wireless Internet access, problems that persist not only in developing nations, but in many remote areas of Alaska, as well.

In the process, we found a rather unique and inexpensive solution for a mobile, battery-powered computer network that’s equally usable at home, at a Scout or Bible camp, and by families on a long-distance driving trip. Some minimal electrical power is required to recharge the battery-operated computers and battery-powered network in the evenings, but even rough, highly fluctuating developing-nation AC power can be used. It’s a “network in a box” — eight highly compact netbook computers that can run most of the day on a single battery charge, connected together with a battery-powered wireless network hub that includes massive central storage.

This week’s Illustration 1 shows the complete, eight-computer, battery-powered school network. In the lower right center of the frame, you’ll see a small rectangular device. That’s the center of each battery-operated network, a Western Digital MyPassport wireless network hub/router/central hard disk, resting on a protective metal case. These cost between $155 (1,000 gigabyte internal hard disk) to $175 (2,000 GB internal hard disk) when bought online at Amazon. It’s a very small but powerful battery-powered central network hub, a file server with a large internal hard disk, and a shared Internet router that can run at least five hours on internal battery power, or longer if a supplemental battery is available. It’s easily recharged by any USB connection to a computer or an inexpensive USB wall-charging adapter.

When used as the hub of a battery-powered wireless network, the WD MyPassport can simultaneously connect up to eight computers within a 40-foot radius to each other as a local area network, while sharing hundreds of gigabytes of videos, photos and other data stored on its large internal hard disk. Although Internet access is not required when connecting nearby computers as a LAN, this WD device can also provide shared Internet access when Internet access is available.

We tried several inexpensive, battery-operated devices to simultaneously connect multiple computers and share centrally stored data, but all had major drawbacks. In the end, the WD MyPassport worked easily and well, with few hassles.

Originally intended for professional photographers on assignment in remote areas, the WD MyPassport also includes an SD card reader that automatically reads any inserted SD card and copies all photos onto the battery-powered hard disk. It’s an ideal way for nature and adventure photographers to make backup copies of their photos when in remote locations.

Eight compact “netbook” computers are included in each “Network in a Box,” the maximum number that can be simultaneously connected by the MyPassport hub. Many netbook models are suitable if they include built-in networking hardware and a solid-state hard disk. Rotary Club members purchased 20 Lenovo ideaPad 100S models with larger than average screens, rugged solid-state hard disks and faster CPU processors, for prices averaging $230 each. This model seems very satisfactory, with good speed, long battery life and Windows 10 Home. Free MS Office-compatible Open Office software and language packs are loaded onto each netbook. Two inexpensive, Samsung, USB-powered drives allow DVDs to be used when necessary.

Electrical voltage in the Alaska Bush and other remote areas tends to fluctuate widely and that can be damaging to electrical equipment. We solved that problem by developing a remote-area charging package. A high-grade “ISOBAR” surge protector is first plugged into the wall outlet to protect equipment from extreme over-voltages. Next, a standard, 2,400-watt “line conditioner” (about $144) boosts 70-volt power and/or reduces 150-volt input to international line standards and stabilizes incoming voltage to standard 110-volt AC power. Then, two standard, 1,350-watt Uninterruptible Power Supplies — basically, very large batteries with 110-volt AC output — are charged from the line conditioner and all computers are, in turn, charged from the UPS batteries.

These UPS batteries are available in case any computers or other battery-powered devices need a little help later in the day. Overnight, the computers, MyPassport wireless hub, and the UPS battery systems recharged where some form of AC electrical power is available, with the ISOBAR plugged into the wall, the line conditioner then plugged into the ISOBAR, the UPS batteries plugged into the line conditioner, and the netbook computers plugged into the UPS batteries. This arrangement provides maximum protection to the most expensive, fragile components.

Although this package was designed to help bring English language education to very poor, developing-nation schools run by faith-based missionary groups, it works comparably well in remote Alaska cabins powered by generators, or remote areas where only limited, poor-quality electrical power is available.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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