2020-March: New Remote Observing Software

We have developed new remote observing software to launch the VNC sessions for Keck remote observing. This new software is designed to provide more user tools, enable better version control, and provide additional debugging features. The new software is available on GitHub. Site managers who wish to upgrade to the new software should contact Keck to get their site configured.

With the new software, users can now restart a single VNC session, restart soundplay, and retrieve a list of available VNC sessions via an interactive menu once the software is launched.

2019-May: Mahalo LBNL

LBNL has notified us of their intent to close their remote observing site. Users in that area should consider the nearby UCB site. According to our records, the first "mainland only" use of the LBNL site was in Nov 2006. We would like to thank LBNL for supporting our Keck observers by providing this service over the last 12+ years.

2019-Feb: Zoom Transition

Starting on Feb 13, 2019 Keck will be using Zoom for videoconferencing rather than polycom. It is important that all sites (including Keck HQ in Waimea) initiate their call to the Zoom meeting, rather than to the usual polycom address you may have called in the past. The remote sites have been made aware of this and have configured and tested their videoconferencing hardware in preparation.

Many sites are still going to be using polycom hardware to make the call. In those cases, the only difference is that the call will be made to a different number than in the past. These should all have been favorited in the polycoms and there should be signage or instructions for observers at each site. Some sites are using alternative Zoom client hardware. In those cases, please contact your local site manager for instructions.

2019-Jan: Zoom Transition

(excerpted from the Keck Observer Newsletter)

The slow drumbeat of changes to Remote Observing (formerly known as Mainland Observing) continues. We will soon be using Zoom for video conferencing during remote observing sessions. Remote sites will be able to connect with Keck night staff using either Polycom hardware or Zoom hardware, so depending on whether the remote site has opted to change their hardware, observers may not see an immediate difference other than the address their Polycom dials to connect to Keck will change. This transition should be fairly smooth because we can support connections from existing hardware (Polycom) and new hardware (Zoom). The exact date for this transition has not been set, but we are coordinating with remote sites on the plan.

Maintaining a high quality experience for our observers is of paramount importance during this transition. As a result, while it is possible to connect to a Zoom meeting from inexpensive hardware (e.g. a cheap webcam and a laptop), we are currently only supporting connections from approved remote stations using approved hardware (high quality cameras and microphones). This ensures that observers and Keck night staff (OAs and SAs) are able to communicate efficiently during the night.

In addition to the coming Zoom transition, we have recently made some changes to the Remote Observing request form that should make submissions quicker, easier and less error-prone. The form now prompts you to choose your request start date from a calendar select, after which you can then select your observing program from a dropdown list. This will auto-fill many of the fields for you such as Telescope, Instrument, Allocating Institution, Requestor info, and PI info. For an even faster start, click the ‘Submit Request’ link next to a program in your table summary of approved programs on your Observer homepage. More improvements are planned in the near future, including further streamlining of the approval process, better management of program Co-observers, as well as improvements to the remote VNC launch scripts. This work is being done by our Scientific Software Group in concert with upgrades to our telescope schedule database.

2018-Feb: Plans for the Future

(excerpted from the Keck Observer Newsletter)

As always, mainland observing remains a popular observing mode for Keck. The mainland observing system has been in place (in one form or another) for more than 15 years now and we are in the midst of re-evaluating some of the technologies which are used to make mainland observing happen.

Our current system relies on ISDN technology to serve as a backup connectivity pathway for "mainland only" qualified sites in case of a network failure. As some of you may know, this is an aging technology which is becoming more difficult and expensive to maintain. We are currently studying alternative technologies to provide backup connectivity in the event of a network failure. We have a working group which includes SAs, observers, and IT experts who are looking at options. It is becoming clear, however, that there are no clear drop in replacements which would provide the same level of path independence as ISDN. As a result, we will be looking at both alternative technologies and at possible policy changes. The internet is very different now than when Keck's Mainland Observing system was first conceived, so this re-examination is probably overdue. This process will take some time as the cost-benefit tradeoffs of possible technologies and policies needs to be considered, so we ask for your patience as we move forward.

In addition to considering alternatives to ISDN backup lines, which most observers won't interact with in practice, we are also examining teleconferencing alternatives to our current polycom system. The interaction between observers and Keck staff (i.e. the OAs and SAs) is critical to maintaining a high quality and efficient observing experience, so this is also a change which we are looking at carefully before implementing. Our current plan is to set up Zoom meeting hosts for both Keck telescopes with backup systems in each of the remote operations rooms in Waimea. We have arranged for polycom connection licenses for these hosts, so that remote sites can connect to Keck using their existing polycom hardware. This allows us to roll out the new system gradually and test it out while maintaining our existing polycom capabilities. Once the new system in in place and tested, we will describe a set of requirements for mainland observing sites to follow if they would like to replace existing polycom hardware with newer hardware.

Finally, we are also updating the instrument VNC sessions. The primary change which will be visible to users is that some instruments will use fewer, larger resolution screens. This will be rolled out on an instrument by instrument basis slowly over time. As a result, observers may notice a change in the layout of the control software that they are used to. In addition, we are changing the VNC host machines from Sun OS to linux which will change some of the network addresses used when connecting to VNCs -- this should be transparent to users, but will allow us to modernize some of our infrastructure.

If you have any questions about these changes or about mainland observing in general, please contact us at Mainland_Observing@keck.hawaii.edu.