A couple of months ago, I watched a video of a presentation given by Sgt. Dave Coughanour of the Army’s 1-110th Infantry at the annual Notacon conference. His presentation, titled "HajjiNets: Running an ISP in a War Zone", examined the challenges and practices of setting up an ISP for the soldiers in Iraq. I started to converse with Dave over email, and he agreed to an interview.
Dave, where are you from in the US and what brought you to join the US Military?
Originally I grew up around Pittsburgh PA. I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1998 as soon as high school was over. It was just something I always wanted to do. After my tour was over, I signed up with the Army National Guard. The strangest part is that my actual MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) has nothing to do with computers, I've been in the Infantry for 8 years.
What do you think the biggest misconception is that Citizens in the US have about soldiers in Iraq?
That the Iraqi people hate us, and we need to pull out immediately. In reality, only about 20% of the country disapproves of coalition forces, and the majority happen to be in Al Anbar province. These were the people that profited under Saddam. Overall this operation is going very well, however the mainstream news is never going to report on that.
There are many pieces of equipment required to run an ISP, where did you get most of your equipment?
Mostly through normal sources, CDW, NewEgg, and so on. We have also had some equipment donated, and a little bit more fell of the back of a truck.
How does the environment effect your equipment?
The most irritating problem is the dust. Its a very fine silt that gets into everything. It makes it very hard to keep CD drives running. The biggest actual problem we have though is maintaining the DSL lines through the post. More than once we've had indirect fire (mortars, rockets, etc) either land directly on the wiring or start secondary fires and burn them up. It also has the oddest effect of scrambling firmware sometimes. Along with that there is also general carelessness that cuts them (people driving tracked vehicles where they shouldn't, construction works, etc). There is no FCC type regulations out here, so radio interference has caused some problems. Lastly all the electricity is 220v running from generators and I only have enough UPS systems to protect the core of the network.
Security is obviously very important, what precautions do you take in a war zone?
Security is hands down my favorite subject area. Without putting all the cards on the table, here are some of the things we do.
- Starting with the clients, everyone must have antivirus, antispyware, and a host firewall if they are running Windows. Also only 2000 and XP are allowed.
- At the top of the network, we also firewall. Only known ports are allowed in and out as well.
- Finally got around to upgrading all wireless APs to WPA. Not perfect but better than WEP.
- At least once a week I do a full scan with Nessus. Users that popup with known holes are instructed on how to fix it, and if not they are disconnected.
What is the cost for a subscriber to use your service?
Initial setup for the hardware is $105 per guy, and service is $60 a month.
From what I understand running hajjinet is a hobby, what is your role in the military in Iraq?
I am on loan to our S6 (Signal section) to run the government networks. They needed a systems admin, and they remembered I went to school for it. So right now my actual day job is being the Automation NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge), were I run our SIPR (Secret), NIPR (Non-classified), and Battle Command systems.
There are tons of Linux distros, what's your flavor?
Oh tough question. It really depends on what I am going to use the machine for. For general desktop work, nothing beats Ubuntu on i386. Its easy to set up, reasonably fast, and well supported. I've found that it has some rather annoying glitches on PPC though. Sometime later today I am going to try out YellowDog for that. On a firewall/gateway ipcop has an amazing line up of features. For intranet server work, I like ClarkConnect. It makes setup brain-dead easy.
As a person with technical expertise, do you have an assessment of the IT infrastructure of Iraq?
Not really in a good position to comment on the overall infrastructure since our post is in a rather backwater region. I hear connectivity in Baghdad is actually really good. There are a lot of teams working to link up the rest of the country, but all the information I have is really second hand.
How many flights does it take to get to Iraq?
Too many. It is a painfully long flight.
Do you ever make contact with traditional journalists and if so, what are they interested in knowing?
Actually, a reporter from Federal Computer Weekly hit me about a week ago on IM. You can read it here: FCW.com.
I would like to thank Dave for his time. If you are interested in learning more visit HajjiNet.