Building networks where the sun doesn’t shine…


When I started building communications networks 11 years ago, I expected to be sitting at a desk. Or maybe in a server closet. If I was really lucky, I figured I’d be in a data centre, or hanging APs in a medical clinic – and I’ve done all of those! BUT I did NOT expect to be underground, attached via console cable to an AP, mounted onto one of these:

Badass drilling tank

That, is a borer, or miner, or boring machine (not “boring” like “yawn”). It bores into rock, underground, thousands of meters below the surface of the earth. And, yes, it was moving, albeit slowly, whilst I was consoled to that AP, trying to figure out why it couldn’t connect to the root AP back towards the rest of the mine.

My home province of Saskatchewan produces approximately 50% of the world supply of Potash. Potash is a big ingredient in commercial fertilizers – potash helps grow strong food.

This means that potash mining is a big deal here; and since most of it comes from here, it also means that, outside of western Canada, many people have never heard of potash (like perogies and bunny-hugs).

Raw potash ore underfoot

Over the past 8 years, I have been incredibly fortunate to spend a lot of time building communications networks for underground mining operations. I have steel-toed boots, a hard hat with my name on it, several pairs of safety glasses, and as you can see in the title image, the latest in arc-flash fashion.

This is certainly a unique environment – in addition to the underground mine, the sites include large mill facilities which process the raw ore, train yards where processed potash is loaded into rail cars for shipping, and more typical administrative office buildings.

At first glance, you might not notice that this shop is underground

I got involved in mining early into what we now call “the internet of things”. Back then, engineers and instrumentation technologists had been trying to adapt to running their controls (PLCs, HMIs, MPUs – valves, belts, motors) over ethernet. These controls had typically all used proprietary protocols and connections, but the vendors had started to see the benefits to using a standardized technology. When I came along, single VLANs stretched the entire length of the mine underground (100s of kilometres); control systems  didn’t quite obey the TCP/IP rules we all know and love; broadcasting constantly like that guy in your office who always talks so loud on the phone that no one else can even read the words on their screens, and these guys were starting to question the impact of running these controls on the same gear as the internet.

Long story short – things are better now! But there are still lots of unique challenges. Mining is a big mix of several networking disciplines:

  • Routing – No more geographically huge VLANs! Also, VRFs to separate control and traditional traffic on the same physical equipment. Best of all – we actually use dynamic routing now (HALLELUJAH).
  • Switching – often regular Catalyst along with industrial switches. The industrial switches in particular come in form factors more suited to installation in moving equipment and power sleds. Where cabling can be pulled, there are increasing numbers of access ports everywhere – including riding on that borer.
IE3000 switch in a cabinet mounted on the borer, along with some PLCs
  • Security – firewalls are big these days as we have begun to heavily protect those controls. Safety is always #1 and controls handle motors, valves, and high voltage electricity.
  • Wireless – Controls, VoIP, and mobile vehicles all operating where physical cabling doesn’t yet exist or can’t be pulled necessitate a lot of Wi-fi.
Copper power and fiberoptic communication cabling wherever it can be
  • Data Centre – often not huge DCs, but virtualized servers and networking have been a huge help in maintaining safety and adaptability.

This is certainly the most interesting work I get to do – so I thought I would share some pictures and thoughts. I’ll end this one here, and I’ll write about more specific work in subsequent posts.



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