Ask the average network administrator about Cisco Systems MCK or NRK, and youre likely to get a blank stare.
Thats because, other than international relief agencies, few know about Ciscos skunk works project—a network in a box designed to deliver in the worst circumstances.
The box, which is about the size of a large suitcase, goes by two names—the Mobile Communications Kit and the NetHope Relief Kit. Cisco doesnt sell the James Bond-like kit directly.
The kit connects to a satellite service to deliver local and long-distance voice and data and standard wired access for buildings and wireless access up to 20 miles. However, the NRK is made up of common off-the-shelf equipment.
Ciscos effort was designed to solve connectivity issues for relief agencies. The problem: Mobile radios are ineffective, and high-frequency radio transmissions are at the mercy of interference and jamming. In addition, bandwidth toll rates can blow budgets when large files such as X-rays are transferred.
Bob Browning, manager of tactical operations support at Cisco, in San Jose, Calif., likened the kits to blocks that can be used to build ad hoc networks. The kit was largely started as a test within the company to see how many products it could cram into a small space.
The kit made its debut in Iraq in 2003 to support the NetHope relief agency, a membership organization comprising the CIOs and chief technology officers of 17 global nongovernmental organizations working in international development.
Cisco created six kits in 2004 to be used during the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Indonesia and Thailand. The kits were also used during Hurricane Katrina in September 2005.
“Its designed to be rugged and available as long as you need it,” Browning said, adding that NRKs are most useful in the first 24 to 48 hours of a disaster but can remain in place until infrastructure comes back online.
The box can operate under multiple AC and DC power standards and includes Ethernet uplink ports, switches for LAN connectivity, antennas for wireless access and associated cables. The box also includes two exhaust fans.
Browning estimates that the kits take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes to set up, with the bulk of that time needed to tune satellite reception.
Browning notes that the NRK is a work in progress, but the possibilities are promising. Six NRKs coupled with Ciscos Mobile Command Vehicle, an RV equipped with networking technology, have managed to generate a mesh network covering 350 square miles. The command center provided the satellite broadband connection, and the NRKs relayed the wireless signals.
“These are like Lego blocks,” Browning said. “There are infinite possibilities.”