Networking engineer with a badge: IT where you least expect it

When Fast Packet contributor Patrick Hubbard was pulled over for speeding, he got an IT tour he didn't expect.

Modern police interceptors carry enough high-output LEDs that they light up like something from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," even in the daytime. I know this because for the first time in a very long time I was recently popped for going eight miles per hour over the speed limit on the freeway. However, what ensued on the roadside was not the common, "Aw, come on! Geez!" experience I expected.

That's because this particular officer was special -- he was a part-time networking engineer. I ended up getting a tech tour of his new cruiser, without the typical and highly unpleasant prerequisite of arrest. As it turns out, modern municipal data network and mobile system engineering is quite remarkable. There's a really sharp network team at work somewhere.

The Internet of cruisers (and lots of other things)

There's not enough space in this column to detail exactly how this officer and I got from, "Do you know why I stopped you?" to me watching traceroutes on a well-worn ToughBook, but it started with me noticing the camera in the multipurpose handheld and ended with him describing his Raspberry Pi Python/WebSocket project. I've worked with federal, state and municipal IT before, and when it comes to city IT, it's often an underfunded mess with old technologies and overworked admins doing the best they can. That said, and maybe it's just trickle-down from Homeland Security funding, but the state of many modern police, fire and EMS networks is pretty amazing, and enterprises could learn a thing or two from them.

For example -- and this is by no means a complete list -- here's what geekofficer.net showed me in his cruiser:

  • Multifunction handheld -- About the size of a thick phablet, it combined custom Android touchscreen apps, stylus, HD video camera, stereo microphones, GPS, compass, accelerometer, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Long Term Evolution (LTE), ID and VIN barcode scanner and more. It records nearly everything in real time, streaming it back to a local hot spot on the cruiser. App traffic goes real-time via LTE with the high-bandwidth data to the car.
  • Mobile Internet hot spot (cruiser) -- The car itself was a cream Dodge Charger with smoked out, faintly visible and highly non-sportsmanlike "POLICE" painted on the sides, it carries dual LTE modems and an in-vehicle LAN, including an access point (AP), SSD video storage unit (probably network-attached storage), headless management PC, mini-switch and more.
  • Hardened notebook -- In-car terminals are gone, replaced by notebooks clamped to a charging stand/gooseneck. When near the cruiser, it joins the vehicle WAN along with the handheld and all share data and the connection. It also has a camera, but more important, really good microphones. When officers are working an incident you'll see them taking notes while speaking with witnesses, but they're also audio recording the conversation. When they return to the cruiser, it streams a copy to the onboard storage. When the officer goes home, he puts the notebook on a VPN just like you and I do for work and files his paperwork electronically.

Lessons for the enterprise NOC

Somewhere at the heart of all this technology are networking engineers -- really smart network engineers -- who make all this work on a city budget in a red state. First, the mobile devices are thrifty with LTE bandwidth. They're dedicated to terse transactional data like tag lookups, while the Wi-Fi is used for anything that can be stored for retrieval later. They're also using mobile bandwidth optimizers in a micro-version of Riverbed appliances on the WAN, packing chatty HTTP to improve app responsiveness.

Somewhere at the heart of all this technology are networking engineers -- really smart network engineers -- who make all this work on a city budget in a red state.

When cruisers enter the depot, they connect to pole-mounted access points and upload all the video and other large media to the cloud. Elastic storage lets them store only the information needed to go to trial, adapting spend as needed just as enterprises can optimize offsite storage to meet temporary peak demand. It also means easy charge-back to the county court, and all IT loves charge-back.

That savvy networking engineer at local municipal police departments also uses Simple Network Management Protocol, Ping and other protocols from the network operations center to track the whereabouts, reachability, routing and bandwidth of the mobile units. With a network device tracker, engineers know exactly how a cruiser is connected, and when it's not on an AP in the depot, managers can ping the cruiser via LTE/3G with status requests. The car also reports its GPS location, whether or not the laptop and handheld are on the cruiser's hotspot and logged in. Managers also get availability and performance statistics on the devices via the cruiser's local network. If I could only have such dominion over bring your own devices on my guest network.

Just like an enterprise, police IT pros are combining custom apps, homemade tech, Software as a Service, cloud, mobile networks, mesh wireless and a host of other technologies -- just in a cooler package. They have the same complex network service requirements and the need for security, dependability and performance that we do in our data centers, plus all the expensive mobile data considerations of FedEx. Perhaps it's a result of gobs of tax money, but maybe, just maybe, it's a little clever engineering downtown.

After dreaming in the land of IT, back to reality

"Well," said the officer, finally snapping me back to reality and the fact that I was in fact busted, "Thanks for being so cool about it."

"Are you sure you can't let me off with a warning?" I asked with my best relaxed bro-smile.

"Nope," he said with a smirk. My eyes followed his blue Bic as he tapped the antenna of his handheld and made a corkscrew motion upward toward the sky.

Damn! I'd been done in, and in only 1,500 milliseconds.

About the author:
Patrick Hubbard is a head geek and senior technical product marketing manager at SolarWinds. With 20 years of technical expertise and IT customer perspective, his networking management experience includes work with campus, data center, storage networks, VoIP and virtualization, with a focus on application and service delivery in both Fortune 500 companies and startups in high tech, transportation, financial services and telecom industries. He can be reached at Patrick.Hubbard@solarwinds.com.

This was first published in March 2014

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