02 February 2020

Computers and Operating Systems - A Reality Check (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this two part series I briefly covered how the current versions of Windows (Windows 10) and a current version of Linux - Raspbian - got to where they are today. Both are good operating systems, and each has something to offer the Amateur Radio community.

But when we look at operating systems from the perspective of what's best for ARES-based EMCOMM work, is there a winner? Are there reasons to pick one over the other?


Just what are the ARES-based EMCOMM computer requirements? Keep in mind, this is my list and I take full ownership of it. The focus is not on hardware or software, but on capabilities. What does the computer & operating system need to deliver to make it a useful tool when supporting an emergency management agency like your local EOC?

First, let's set the scenario. For planning purposes we have to assume the worst. Think a Hurricane Maria-type situation. Austere, no Internet, intermittent power. The computer needs to be used not just for ARES EMCOMM tasks but also general purpose tasks like managing email, preparing documents, presentations and analyzing spreadsheet data, etc. The computer will be used by multiple ARES operators over the course of the event, so the interface needs to be easily understood by the average appliance operator (see Part 1).

We can also assume that at some point the computer will be added to a local area network, so the OS and its networking functionality needs to be well understood - and trusted - by the IT support staff. Since the computer will be used by multiple ARES operators the OS needs to be able to support multiple user accounts, and those accounts may need to be managed by an external Active Directory server or similar authentication service. In short, the computer you bring to the disaster needs to 'play well with others'. In addition the computer must:

  • natively run Winlink, Fldigi and JS8CALL and any other critical Amateur Radio software (no emulators)
  • run a locally installed office automation suite like Microsoft Office, Open Office or Libra Office (remember, no Internet = no Google Docs or Office Online)
  • be compatible with the supported agency's computer and network security software
  • be supportable by the supported agency's IT staff

ARES EMCOMM support staff needs to fall-in on standardized equipment that has a flat learning curve and minimal support requirements, so they can focus on providing effective support, and not on futzing with a new and different computer equipment and interfaces. Remember, very few ARES members who show up to support a disaster will be computer superstars. Most fit the appliance operator mold - their experience is limited to the desktops or laptops they use at home, and those computers overwhelmingly run... Windows. While it's OK to pray for a never ending supply of superstars, we have to plan for the appliance operators, and the appliance operators run Windows.

What do all these requirements point to? Clearly, Microsoft Windows.

Next, let's talk about hardware. In Part 1 I reviewed the Raspberry Pi - a truly groundbreaking bit of hardware that attracts a huge variety development and integration effort within the Amateur Radio community. There's a lot of effort going on today to try to turn Raspberry Pi's into general use ARES EMCOMM computers. But in this specific use case, as an EMCOMM common computing platform, it falls short. 

While the basic Pi is quite a good little computer, it lacks important features such as a real-time clock, a battery-based power supply, a case, a keyboard, a mouse, and a monitor. Yes, all of these can be easily added - and most users certainly plug in a keyboard, mouse and HDMI monitor to get up and running. But when you start adding in all the necessary components to make a Pi a truly useful general purpose ARES EMCOMM computer, well, you are schlepping around more than you can carry in one hand. Which begs the question - how is this better than a regular laptop? C'mon folks, every laptop built in the last 20 years comes with a real time clock, a battery capable of powering the system for several hours, a full keyboard, a touchpad for cursor control, and a screen. All in one handy, easy to carry package. Again, appliance operator vs. superstar.  Imagine an appliance operator-level ARES member sitting down at a Raspberry Pi for the first time and trying to find the on/off switch (hint - Rapberry Pi's don't have on/off switches).

Score one for the standard laptop configuration. It simply makes more sense. Flattens the learning curve. Gives the operator a form factor they are already familiar with.

So, Windows + Laptop = the ideal ARES EMCOMM common use computing platform. This is what we should be focusing on as we put together equipment support packages for our local EMAs. Forget the exotic gear or the cool maker stuff. Plan against the common denominator, and in this scenario that's the appliance operator. 

Your thoughts?

W8BYH out

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