The initial system award was to replace an outdated IP system for access to NASA audio assets by remote NASA personnel, researchers, scientists and partner nation personnel involved with the International Space Station (ISS). Included in this access were joint audio channels for significant launch and Station operations and experiments along with the control of the critical radio link direct to the ISS. Prior trials with NASA personnel had provided significant validation of DICES VoIP and the competitive bid process resulted in Best Value decision for Quintron. This system can support up to 200 simultaneous users and utilized the DICES VoIP fully-redundant server option for maximum reliability factors. All system access was provided via the DICES VoIP Soft Client keyset, a Java-based application downloaded from MSFC servers.
Beyond the considerable COTS capabilities of DICES VoIP, this project required development of several new features critical to MSFC operational plans:
- Encryption of audio traffic from the remote users (many on public internet) to the central servers at MSFC.
- Use of existing centralized NASA authentication systems for user log-in as a pass-through function for DICES VoIP (reduced system administration costs and greater security).
- Provision of a special system administration user interface control (Limited Operator) to replicate an existing control for access to the Space Station radio link.
Following extensive testing, this first DICES VoIP system was placed into operational service in late 2007 with continuous successful support since then. A major unplanned but critical usage for this system was emergency support for 30 flight controllers in September 2008 when Hurricane Ike necessitated evacuation of the Johnson Space Center.
During 2008, an expansion of this initial DICES VoIP capability was considered to provide control room support for several groups at MSFC where outdated existing equipment needed replacement. To support this decision, Quintron provided evaluation equipment including a new operator keyset for dedicated access versus previous Soft Client application used for remote users. This keyset utilized a COTS single-board computer (SBC) with small desktop touch screen panel for the actual user GUI. The SBC utilizes a Quintron-specific version of Linux with most external service ports disabled to appear like a “black box” to IT scans. This was seen as critical to minimize on-going operation costs in the NASA IT environment.
In addition to this new hardware keyset option, Quintron developed a new audio distribution option, called Multi-Group that provided greatly reduced latency for operators sitting adjacent to each other in a control room. VoIP systems have inherent latency well beyond normal TDM systems needed to manage the IP conversions and network interactions and this normally creates an “echo” effect when operators are close enough to hear each other normally as well as through the system. Testing with users confirmed that this new audio feature provided clearly acceptable latency performance.
Based on successful initial user testing, a second DICES VoIP system was purchased, including another redundant central server along with 100 user keysets (SBC and touch screen). An additional system was also purchased to be used as a test bed for system configuration and software update testing prior to implementation onto the main system. This new system has been supporting control room operations successfully since 2010.
Another significant update was completed during early 2012 to provide higher security for MSFC system user log-ins. To accomplish this, Quintron successfully incorporated the two-factor authentication controls provided by the RSA SecurID key tokens. This change was fully integrated with existing DICES VoIP log-in procedures including the ability from the user GUI to change user log-in credentials; greatly simplifying system administration and eliminating duplicate user interactions.
The major new development items along with the extensive testing done to support cutover in this Federal environment were major work efforts for Quintron as well as the MSFC personnel. There have been literally dozens of improvements provided to MSFC along the way as they have used the system and identified modifications for incorporation to enhance their systems usability and performance.